At Sky Island Alliance, we work to protect the water and wildlife of the Sky Island region. This includes stopping wall construction and removing border wall barriers so that wildlife — and humans, too — can heal.
Explore this page for a brief history of the U.S.-Mexico border wall and surrounding laws, how the wall impacts the Sky Island region, and more.
The federal governmental has been developing U.S.-Mexico border infrastructure since the early 1990s. In 2005, Congress passed the Real ID Act, which allows the Department of Homeland Security to waive any legal requirements necessary to develop border infrastructure and security. As of 2021, 84 environmental and other federal laws and statutes have been waived to accelerate border wall construction.
On January 20, 2021, after several months of watching wall construction accelerate through the borderlands in several border states, President Joe Biden issued a proclamation that paused all border barrier construction until the sources of funding and contracts for the wall were reviewed.
To date, the U.S. Department of Defense has canceled the contracts that were paid for by funds taken from reserves originally intended for military use. This includes some of Arizona’s current projects. Other contracts are being reviewed.
In February 2021, Sky Island Alliance joined 70 other groups and organizations in sending a document titled Stopping the Border Wall: Criteria and Priority Areas for Conservation and Restoration to the White House. We are calling for the administration to cancel border wall contracts, restore lands damaged by construction, remove sections of built wall, and restore equal protection under the law along the U.S-Mexico border. We are still calling for sections of the border wall to be formally canceled, not just paused.
Locally, some repairs to flood barrier systems and dangerous soil erosion areas have been made, but there is still much to do in Arizona. During FY2021 appropriations, the House version of the Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill directed $75 million from DHS to the Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service for mitigation activities around the border wall and barriers. We are hopeful that these funds will be used to start restoration projects.
This situation is ongoing and still developing.
Photos from the Borderlands
How the Wall Impacts the Sky Island Region
At least 84 federal and state laws and regulations, including the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Protection Act, were waived to advance border wall construction in the four border states. Click here for the full list of laws and regulations waived (source: University of Ohio).
The University of Ohio finds that 909 total miles of border barriers were constructed without the protection of these laws and regulations between 2005 and 2021. During the Trump administration alone, over 263 miles of new barriers in Arizona and New Mexico were built in areas that support critical wildlife corridors, habitat, and springs.
Here are just a few ways the wall impacts the Sky Island region in particular.
1. It has severed terrestrial wildlife migration corridors, separating animals from food, habitat, and their core populations in the U.S. and Mexico. In particular, the wall affects large mammals, low-flying bird species, and endangered animals like the jaguar, ocelot, and Mexican gray wolf. Note: Our Border Wildlife Study monitors one of the last open migration corridors between Arizona and Mexico.
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2. New roads, some 60 – 100 feet wide, were graded to provide access to construction sites and patrol roads for law enforcement. In the process:
- Water was sprayed to keep the dust down on roads during construction.
- Cacti, trees, and other plants were bulldozed and removed to make room for the road.
- Increased vehicle traffic created noise and light pollution that disturbed the species who traverse these lands.
3. It impacted important water sources (e.g., rivers and aquifers) during times of incredible drought. Water was pumped from underground aquifers and springs to mix with concrete for the wall, and wall sections were built across waterways like the San Pedro River, which dammed certain places or reduced the flow of water.
4. New border lighting reduced the nighttime habitats of the borderlands and disrupts nocturnal species that rely on the cover of darkness to travel and hunt. In fact, through our Border Wildlife Study, we’ve found that a majority of all mammal sightings occurred between sunset and sunrise, and half of the mammal species we’ve photographed have only been seen at night.
5. Indigenous communities and Tribal lands have been devastated by the border wall. Sacred lands and springs were torn apart by road grading and construction of the 30-foot steel wall without any prior consultation of the Native Nations affected. [Watch We are the Water Missing Home by Arizona Illustrated.] For more information, visit the Tohono O’odham Nation’s website to learn more about how border wall construction has harmed their burial, cultural, and sacred sites.
Frequently Asked Questions
What should I know about visiting the borderlands?
Our staff, partners, and volunteers have worked safely along both sides of the border for many years. If you’d like to visit the Sky Island region’s beautiful borderlands and plan to drive along the international border on the U.S. side, we simply recommend calling the nearest Border Patrol office to give them a vehicle description and let them know you’ll be in the area.
If you encounter a migrant on the U.S. side of the border, it is legal to offer them food, water, blankets, or clothing—humanitarian aid is never a crime. If someone is injured or requires medical aid, notify Border Patrol right away. For additional reading on what to do during migrant encounters, visit the Humane Borders website.
What about migrants and human foot traffic? Don’t those also damage the borderlands?
Overall, the damage done by litter and people walking through the borderlands pales in comparison to the damage caused by border infrastructure and border patrol activities. Litter can be cleaned up; repairing erosion and recharging springs and watersheds is a lot more challenging.
While migrants do cross the U.S.-Mexico border into the United States, Sky Island Alliance staff frequents the 30 miles of our Border Wildlife Study and see only small quantities of litter along designated border roads. This litter comes from a variety of sources in addition to migrants, including individuals working or recreating on public lands.
In any given month, our Border Wildlife Study cameras — which are further away from roads and provide an unbiased sample of the people present along the border in Coronado National Forest and the San Rafael State Natural Area — detect Border Patrol agents, ranchers on horseback, hunters and their dogs, our field crew, and migrants traveling through the area on foot. Detections of humans in total make up less than 6% of all sightings on our 70-camera array.
Won’t removing the wall or adding alternative security infrastructure cause environmental damage?
The long-term damage caused by building border roads, constructing border barriers, pumping water from springs and watersheds, and disturbing wildlife habitat far outweighs any short-term damage that may be created through restoration efforts. This said, two easy changes can be made immediately without further disturbing the environment.
First, we can restore some immediate access for wildlife to their historic migratory routes by opening established floodgates at water crossings along the border. Second, turning off border wall lighting at night can help restore a more natural nighttime environment for wildlife.
What needs to happen next?
We strongly advocate for significant changes to border infrastructure, like wall removal, that can happen carefully and without further environmental impact if wall sections are removed or replaced with wildlife friendly fencing (like vehicle barriers and wire fencing), if soil is stabilized and de-compacted, and if barren roads and construction sites are revegetated with native plants. We also want to see the reinstatement of environmental laws, such as the National Environmental Policy Act, at the border and no further construction of border barriers.