“Some Ecological Damage from Trump’s Rushed Border Wall Could Be Repaired”

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The Story

“Some Ecological Damage from Trump’s Rushed Border Wall Could Be Repaired”
by April Reese
Scientific American, January 25, 2021

The Pitch

Hi [editor],
I hope you’re well, or as well as any of us can be these days. I’ve got a story idea I thought SciAm might be interested in — it’s related to the piece we worked on together last year. Here’s the pitch:

One-sentence summary: 

Conservationists and some scientists hope to convince the Biden administration to tear down parts of the US-Mexico border fence. But removal is just the start in restoring the ecological damage — and with COVID-crunched budgets, tough choices would need to be made about what to save and what to sacrifice.

The White House is rushing to complete 450 miles of steel-and-concrete fence along the US-Mexico border by the end of the year. But what goes up might come down: At least some of those segments could be toppled after President-elect Joe Biden takes office — if conservationists succeed in convincing his administration to do so.  But which parts should be removed, and how to put the land back together afterward, are questions that have no easy answers.

Over the past four years, the Trump administration has built new segments of border fence along some of the most ecologically sensitive areas of the border, including the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona, the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico and stretches of the Rio Grande in Texas. Even during this lame duck period between Biden’s win and Trump’s exit, construction continues in places like Quitobaquito Springs in Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where water siphoned to make the fence’s concrete base could hurt the endangered Quitobaquito pupfish and Sonoyta mud turtle. Conservationists — encouraged by Biden’s recent pledge to stop construction of the border fence — are already compiling a list of segments to tear down and sites to remediate: north-south waterways choked with sediment; cleared riparian woodlands; severed wildlife corridors. “The potential for restoration is HUGE here,” Aaron Flesch, a wildlife biologist at the University of Arizona told me in an email.

But conservationists, tribes and scientists disagree on which fence segments should come down first, or in some cases, at all. One hydrologist I spoke with, who  works for the National Park Service in Arizona, wonders whether fence site remediation would tie up funds better spent on languishing restoration projects far from the border. And fence removal is just the start: Scientists say fixing habitat and bifurcated streams would take years and millions in funding that may be hard to come by amid COVID-19 recovery. Certain areas, like Monument Hill in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where crews blasted rock to make way for the fence, can never be restored to what it was, the scientists and conservationists I’ve spoken with say. And since the Department of Homeland Security was able to waive environmental and cultural protection laws to build the fence under a special authority granted by Congress in 2005, the full extent of the damage from pedestrian fence ramp-up, which has been under way since the George W. Bush administration, is largely unknown.

I’d like to write a 1,300-word piece that explores the push by some scientists and conservationists to get the Biden administration to commit to fence removal, and, if they’re successful, how such an unprecedented remediation effort might be done.  I’d place this in the context of the decades-long effort to construct ever-higher pedestrian fences along the border, and I’d look at the financial, ecological and logistical challenges of undoing the damage. I’d draw on the draft list of priority sites that conservationists are putting together as well as site-specific scientific studies and federal data on fence impacts on wildlife and waterways. I’m based in one of the four border states — New Mexico — and have reported on and from the border fence many times over the past 15 years. Last year, I did a multiple-story project on the environmental and social impacts of Trump’s new border fences in Texas and Arizona supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which included a piece for Scientific American. You can read that and other SciAm (and Nature) stories I’ve done here:


Thanks for considering my pitch. I look forward to hearing what you think.



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