UA Researchers Look to Balance Security, Wildlife Preservation
A new protocol, now under review, could lead to a better understanding of the border fence’s impact on natural resources.

Alan Fischer
June 30, 2010

University of Arizona researchers have developed a protocol now under review that looks at the most effective way for policymakers to balance the goals of national security and wildlife preservation on the Arizona/Mexico border.

A federal program that began in 2006 to erect barriers on the border was exempt from existing required environmental impact studies, but now the Department of Homeland Security has funded the development of a protocol, which could be used to study the fence's impact on natural resources, said Laura Lopez-Hoffman, assistant professor at the UA School of Natural Resources and assistant research professor at the UA Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy.

The project offers policymakers information for looking at existing – and possible future – security infrastructure along the U.S./Mexico border.

"This protocol is very comprehensive: it looks at vegetation impacts and impacts on hydrology, water flow and erosion; it looks at species movement; and it's also going to look at the genetic affects of isolating species or populations on one side of a wall versus on the other side. It's very, very comprehensive."

UA researchers became involved in the study in December 2009 at a meeting organized by U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (called a listening session for the border fence monitoring mitigation project) where people were invited to come and share their concerns about environmental impacts and share suggestions on how a monitoring program should be structured, Lopez-Hoffman said.

"It is critically important for federal government agencies to consider all factors in projects such as this," said C.J. Karamargin, Giffords' communications director. "The congresswoman wanted to make sure federal decision-makers heard from groups that work to preserve the desert and residents who live near the border.

"We must balance the need for strong border security with the rights of private land owners and the potential environmental impacts that can result from the construction of a border fence," Karamargin said. "Our desert lands are fragile, and we must be vigilant in protecting them."

The U.S. Geological Survey was charged with developing a scientific team to develop the protocol for monitoring the impacts of the border fence. The idea is that eventually this protocol will be used as a blueprint for identifying locations that need to have mitigation actions, Lopez-Hoffman said.   

"What we've got now is anecdotal information and studies that look at one species or one section, but we really need a comprehensive analysis of the impacts over a large stretch of area," she said. "We need a comprehensive study that looks at a good chunk of the border and looks at impacts on species, vegetation and hydrology. Also a comprehensive study is needed to look at the impacts of all the different kinds of border security: the walls, pedestrian barriers, are there differences between a single layer of pedestrian barriers and double layers. We need to know the difference between a pedestrian barrier or a vehicle fence vs. the SBI Net towers. That's really critical."

Determining what works – and what doesn't – to prevent illegal crossings as well as to protect natural resources is the goal.

"Clearly there are sections where the border infrastructure, the security infrastructure, itself is having an ecological impact, either by preventing animals from moving across or by preventing water, causing flooding," she said. "Clearly the security infrastructure has an impact, but the lack of infrastructure also has had an impact, as people cross unfettered and create trails and leave trash."

Some landowners in Southern Arizona report their land is in better shape since porous vehicle barriers have gone up because automobiles are prevented from crossing. Others report less trash and damage to land since the fence was erected, she said.

"There are locations where it is helpful to have (security) infrastructure, and there are locations where infrastructure has been damaging," she said. "What's really important is to do a cross-the-board study of the impacts of border security and look at the hard-wall infrastructure, pedestrian fences and the towers."

The monitoring protocol, developed on a volunteer basis by about 20 scientists, has been submitted to DHS and the U.S. Department of the Interior for review. That will be followed by public comment and necessary modifications.

"We will have a protocol, and hopefully there is enough interest from Congresswoman Giffords, the Department of the Interior and DHS, that they decide to fund and implement the monitoring," Lopez-Hoffman said.

Giffords maintains her strong support for the project, Karamargin said.

"The congresswoman believes that having the departments of the Interior and Homeland Security complete a report on the impacts of border security infrastructure on the environment could be a valuable tool in making sure that we not only monitor the impact of infrastructure but also provides the data we need for a robust mitigation effort," he said.

In addition to participating the on monitoring team, Lopez-Hoffman studies transboundary environmental policy. She recently edited a book on the topic entitled, "Conservation of Shared Environments: Learning from the U.S. and Mexico" by the UA Press.

"The goal of the book is helping people see the whole issue, the ramifications of the issue, presenting scientific or legal information in a way that is accessible, and hopefully providing suggestions and ideas for how to chart ways forward that are perhaps more thoughtful, more sustainable or environmentally sound, as well as more cognizant of diversity of stakeholders surrounding the particular issues we tackle," said Lopez-Hoffman.

The book suggests that there are three things that could help transboundary conservation that are actionable in the short-term:

  • Earlier dialogue between the U.S. and Mexico on how to managed the shared borderlands environment has led to a series of agreements and treaties that could be used to provide a basis for joint collaborative monitoring and perhaps even collaborative decision making about mitigation for the impact of the boarder wall on area environments.

  • A 1944 water treaty provides the basis for studies and activities to try to restore and protect the Colorado River delta.

  • Taking a broad ecological view of the situation and define, as the North American Free Trade Agreement has done, the border as 100 kilometers on either side.

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Border fence monitoring protocol project researchers with UA ties:

  • Ed Glenn - UA department of soil water and environmental science
  • Laura Lopez-Hoffman - UA School of Natural Resources and the Environment and Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy
  • James Leenhout - USGS and UA department of hydrology and water resources
  • Charles Van Riper - UA School of Natural Resources and the Environment
  • Robert Webb - USGS and UA departments of geosciences and hydrology and water resources
  • Bob Steidl - UA School of Natural Resources and the Environment
  • Laura Norman - USGS and UA Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy
  • Miguel Villareal - UA School of Natural Resources and the Environment
  • Adrian Quijada - UA School of Natural Resources and the Environment
  • Randy Gimblett - UA School of Natural Resources and the Environment
  • Cynthia Wallace - USGS and UA Office of Arid Land Studies
  • Melanie Culver - USGS and UA School of Natural Resources and the Environment
  • Pamela Nagler - USGS and UA School of Natural Resources and the Environment