My Turn: Unnatural walls in the borderlands

  • Part of the U.S.-Mexico border wall in Arizona is covered in concertina wire. Linda Graham

For the Monitor
Published: 5/23/2019 12:30:27 AM

I read about the border wall. I watch the news. Migrants standing in long lines at the border, waiting. I see desert. I read about the desperation of people to escape countries fouled by gangs and a loss of civil society. The stories affect me but are distant from my own day-to-day life of ease, enough food and safety.

Last month, I traveled to the borderlands of Arizona for my second trip with the Great Old Broads for Wilderness. It’s a curious name but appealing to anyone who has reached “old” and still wishes to be thought of as great, or a broad, or is interested in wilderness. It is an elder-women-led organization dedicated to preserving public lands, keeping the wild in wilderness and being outside while having fun.

My first GOB camp-out was to the Boundary Waters Wilderness Canoe Area of Minnesota, where a small amount of runoff from a mine owned by the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta would pollute the pristine waters with sulfuric acid, forever changing this richly wild territory in both Canada and the United States. Barack Obama stopped the mine; Donald Trump just allowed it to go through.

The April borderlands “broad walk” took us to the American Museum of Natural History’s Southwestern Research Station, where we were introduced to the biodiversity of the Chiricahua Mountains and the environmental impact of the wall.

The Chiricahuas were formed by continental plates smashing into each other, followed by volcanoes, which rained down dust and ash. Eons of rain, freezing and thawing created eerie rock formations called hoodoos, with names like organ pipe and totem pole.

The mountains that rose in the original smash now are isolated from each other by desert. Each is unique.

Driving down Arizona’s long, straight roads, views across the desert to stunning purple mountains are sometimes interrupted by white border patrol trucks.

Our first night included a presentation by the director of the Southwestern Research Station. He left a job in the corporate world when he fell in love with this area, determined to save the endangered Southwestern leopard frog. Clear maps of the sky islands and their expanse throughout the United States and into Mexico compellingly illustrated the unique area and its resistance to borders defined by straight lines.

Our days were filled working on a stewardship project or hiking in the Chiricahua Mountains. Then we went to see the wall.

Some of the wall – which includes 15-foot-tall panel fences, vehicle barriers, x-crossed fencing and panels covered in concertina wire – has been there since the 1990s and more is being developed or replaced, including through wilderness areas.

I went with the group to the western side of Douglas, Ariz., where the wall bisects desert. The Mexican side was greener. We could see down the miles of fenced wall to an area with concertina wire. I counted five rows of wire on our side of the wall. At our feet was a grave marker for a 20-year-old man who died less than 100 feet from the wall.

We traveled back past the port of entry, which is barricaded thoroughly, and off to the east, where the wall is several layers deep and covered in concertina wire.

At night we learned about the Mexican gray wolves and the jaguars. You may not be a fan of wolves or jaguars, but their existence is an exciting, manageable part of life in the Southwest. Wisely, the Northern Jaguar Reserve has partnered with Mexican ranchers, who allow trail cameras throughout their ranches and the 55,000 acres of the reserve.

The trail photos document the jaguars’ existence, as well as the existence and natural life of the mountain lions, ocelots, coatis, jaguarundis, javelinas and more.

The reserve pays well for photos of jaguars and other animals in a deal with the ranchers so they do not hunt, bait, poison or otherwise harm the animals. The reserve works with them to identify areas predators are in and helps the ranchers move their herds to safety.

Each year is celebrated with a festival and prizes for the best photos, with music and food. This is the sort of deal I admire.

There have long been deals between Mexico and the United States to protect wilderness along the border, and land is still protected in Mexico. It was protected in the United States, but the Real ID Act of 2005 allowed the secretary of homeland security to waive any law that would interfere with his choice of where to build a border barrier, a wall or other security measure.

The wall and border patrol agents have changed the wilderness areas and may lead to the extinction of some species.

While my camping trip elevates my understanding of the area, I find myself at a loss to express the human cost. Not just anyone would walk this terrain. “Migrant” does not do justice to the courage it takes to leave one’s home to face this alien world.

We learn from nature. The wall defeats the natural crossing of animals, from toads to snakes to jaguars. Humans have yet to be defeated, but many have died along the way.

(Linda Graham lives in Concord.)

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