On Monday, President Donald Trump delivered Congress a record $4.75 trillion budget plan that has already been announced dead on arrival by Democratic leaders. Among the budget’s proposals are steep cuts in environmental spending and an additional $8.6 billion for the construction of a wall along the Southern border of the United States.
Currently, the Senate is readying to pass a resolution that denounces the building of Trump’s border wall under the justification of a National Emergency. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and officials close to the president have indicated that the resolution will be vetoed if passed.
The inclusion of money for the wall is yet another sign the construction is an unwavering priority for the Trump Administration. Though Congress certainly will not pass many of the proposals in the budget, the plan is indicative of the president appealing to his base as he transitions into campaign rhetoric.
The Trump Administration’s immigration policy and border wall construction have wreaked political and humanitarian havoc since their implementation. The evidence is in the Government Shutdown, the humanitarian “Breaking Point” at the border declared by the Department of Homeland Security, and the declaration of a national emergency.
The environment itself is losing court battles in its effort to not be another victim of these policies. The National Butterfly Center, a private piece of property owned by the North American Butterfly Association is among the various conservatories and biodiverse areas to be put under threat by the construction of a solid barrier.
In 2011, Jesse Lasky, Assistant Professor of Biology at Pennsylvania University, published a study examining the risk to animal dispersal if additional barriers were constructed along the southern border. Lasky concluded that new barriers would significantly increase the number of species at risk, and now that additional barriers are becoming a reality, the ecological threat to the region’s wildlife is growing.
With the prospect of more border wall construction looming, The Globe Post spoke to Lasky about the environmental impact of Trump’s proposed wall, and whether or not there is any chance to save the animal species at risk.
Q: Your report was conducted in 2011 before Trump’s definition of a border wall was even a concept. So to clarify that report was in in reference to just barriers in general?
Lasky: The study that we did was intended to be pretty general, to be geared towards potential impacts of any major barriers on animal movement, and that can happen in a variety of forms, including the bollards, because the bollards will completely stop any animal that is too big to fit through.
There’s a bunch of those [animals] that we care about. For something like a jaguar, there’s no difference really between a bollard and a concrete wall. And the other reason for trying to be pretty general about it at the time, and I don’t know if it has been appreciated, is that a lot of the barriers that were built under the Secure Fence Act and the Bush administration were actually concrete walls that were used as flood control. So the reason why they’ve made concrete walls in some areas was for Rio Grande flood control in the Rio Grande Valley where that was going on. Those were built as a part of the Secure Fence Act and those kind of things are more in line with I think what at least Trump initially discussed when he was campaigning.
Q: Given that you understand the ecological and security impacts of barriers do you have any opinion or thought on alternatives for the government in addressing border security broadly along the border?
Lasky: There’s one way I view this from a professional ecological view which is that anything that Border Patrol wants to do to stop human movement or to allow them to see people crossing will sort of run directly counter to things that favor animal movement. So, there’s been discussion previously about how maybe in some of the locations where there’s been gaps left in the fences that maybe we could plant natural vegetation to try to encourage animal movement there.
But that actually runs completely against what the Border Patrol wants to do because they want maximum visibility. So they want lighting up all throughout the night, they want, and have, installed stadium lighting in many locations. They also want no vegetation in many locations. So there’s a real sort of direct opposition between those two goals that isn’t speedily solved and so to me it seems like maybe a better route is to try to tackle, for example, the pressure that is sort of coming from people crossing outside of ports of entry.
So, reduce the interests that people have in moving outside of the ports of entry either through making it easier to apply for asylum, etc. It is also well documented and acknowledged by the government that the the bulk of drugs and other contraband does come through legal ports of entry. The problems that are often cited as being potentially solved by putting up walls or other barriers aren’t really well solved by that solution at all, there’s much better solutions for those things. In my mind the wall is a symbolic thing for Trump and his supporters.
Q: Being that you’ve identified this threat and have known about it for some time did you ever imagine in your position that you would find yourself being contacted to kind of refute the White House on whether or not to construct a security barrier, or be involved in that debate at all.
Lasky: Yeah actually, I have been following it and I’m not surprised that it’s come back for a couple reasons. One is that to an uninformed casual observer it might not make sense to people why there is a kind of patchwork of barriers that were built under the Bush Administration. And so I can see why there is some motivation from some corners to finish the dang wall or whatever John McCain said when he was running for Senate in 2010 or whatever year that was. I can understand why it’s still around. And at the same time it’s been a part of discussions for compromises between Democrats and Republicans for Immigration for quite a while.
So you know I even mentioned in my paper which came out under the Obama Administration that there is a reasonable potential for more border walls to be built in exchange for immigration policy goals that the Democrats wanted.You know its like I said, seems like maybe it’s not going to happen this time around but I still wouldn’t be surprised if I see it in the future so I’m not surprised this hasn’t gone away.
Q: So I’m sure you saw recently that the spending bill that was passed in February did include about a quarter of the money that President Trump had originally requested for wall funding. And they said that money would provide around 55 miles of barrier. Could you offer any predictions of how that will have an immediate, and then a more long term effect, like you identified in your study?
Lasky: It’s a little challenging to say too much specifics because there’s a lot of the Rio Grande that is currently un-fenced or un-walled, but some of the areas that got the most fencing before were in the lower Rio Grande Valley. There are still a lot of gaps left there, so that seems like probably a major target for them, and further construction.
That’s an area that has seen a lot of impact from both urbanization and intense agriculture. That’s a very productive agricultural region, and now there’s not a lot of natural vegetation left down there, but the remaining vegetation people have been working very hard at conserving and also conserving corridors for wildlife movement. That’s one of the most diverse regions in the United States. You have a lot of mixing of species that are sort of more temperate species that maybe you’re familiar with across larger areas of the United States. And then at the same time more tropical species that have distributions that sort of hug the Gulf Coast.
You know it’s a big place for eco tourism especially for birders who go to see tropical bird species that come into the United States in the Rio Grande Valley. Things like ocelot, or other large charismatic vertebrate, that’s endangered and there are some small populations remaining that people work really hard to conserve down there. So you know in the near term finishing or expanding the barriers there would be a big problem for especially the species that need to mount large distances for finding food and water and that’s where I think individual populations may be strongly impacted. Often large vertebrates, things like dear, oscelot, perhaps bobcats. Those kinds of animals need to move a lot of large distances to find what they need and the big barriers that they’re going to construct would be a big problem for that.
There’s another concern which is that the construction isn’t subject to any actual environmental protections so that when they want to tear down natural vegetation to build these barriers it doesn’t matter if they’re directly killing an endangered species to do so because all of the Environmental Protection regulatory law is off off the tables. They’ve already started construction on some of the Nature preserves down there that are preserving some of the last remaining land and it’s really important like the National Butterfly Center for example as one of the places.
Over the longer term I’m more concerned about problems that arise when animals can’t move between populations and so you can get things like a loss of genetic diversity. Loss of genetic diversity can happen from lack of movement and that can be a problem because it can limit the ability of populations to adapt as their environment changes like for example as climates change. Or you can also sometimes, in small isolated populations, get things like inbreeding depression. A famous example [of that] would be the Florida panther. And then also too for the long term there’s a problem where, I guess imagine some disturbance occurs, maybe a big flood, a tornado or something and it knocks out a population of a species in one location. If you have prevented the ability of the organisms to move across the landscape then they can’t refound those populations to allow for the sort of natural renewal as populations go extinct and then are refounded. So that process cannot happen if animals can’t move around the landscape.
Q: The Trump administration, and recently a couple federal appeals courts, have waived the rights to a lot of environmental laws that have fast-tracked a lot of the construction. And so from your science perspective what is the larger consequence of bypassing environmental laws like that and what does that reveal about the government’s attitude toward environmental regulation?
Lasky: Yeah, some of the first most important aspects of those regulatory laws are for environmental impact studies [which are] rigorous studies to be done to assess the potential outcomes of major construction projects, and this is certainly a major construction project. The real I.D. Act is the act that came before the Secure Fence Act that gave them the authority to do this. The way it’s written is that they can do this at any time along the border in the name of border security, so that at any time if the funding were available the government could construct a 30 foot concrete wall across the entire border and have to do no study of potential impacts to the environment. And that doesn’t just cover the Endangered Species Act, it also covers the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts; that covers any kind of environmental regulation, that covers the regulation of protection of archaeological sites, and things like that are all encompassed by the power under the Real I.D. Act which is, I think, pretty dramatic.
So you know essentially anything that’s allowable under the Constitution, anything beyond that they can they can do in the name of border security which is you know it’s a big problem because in the case environmental impacts we don’t even have the studies to know the potential problems of what they’re doing. I mean I guess the another thing is even if the impact studies were done so we have some sense of what was going on, even if in the end people decided that the border barriers were a higher interest [then at least we would have that data]. But in this case you know we don’t even have the impact studies so we don’t even really know what kind of damages we’re causing.
It shows where the value is placed here; It’s not placed on any sort of environmental protection. That is, I guess, fitting with their portrayal that this is an emergency that has to be solved immediately, although it doesn’t really sort of square with the way things went for the last two years under the combined Republican control where they didn’t get funding for this, it’s not really that popular of a policy, so I really think it should make people skeptical of whether this is an emergency and if that means we should throw out all of our environmental protections and just dive headlong into this thing.
Q: I did want to ask you whether or not you think there is a security situation that’s worthy of declaring a national emergency at the border?
Lasky: Yeah I don’t see that. And this is outside my policy expertise, so this is just me speaking as a well-read citizen, but I don’t see any evidence of that I mean I lived in Texas for six years and spent a fair amount of time down along the border, and the people that live down there will tell you there’s not a security emergency and it wasn’t in the major recent security reports from the heads of agencies involved in intelligence and security that reported to Congress. They didn’t mention this as a major concern so I think that tells you everything you need to know there.
Q: And would from your professional opinion, not necessarily that there is one, but would you say there is of an environmental emergency?
Lasky: I mean it’s definitely an emergency for some of the species that are barely hanging on.There are a lot of endangered species in the border regions especially in the coastal regions where there’s already been a lot of human development. So, I’ve been talking mostly about the Gulf Coast, but the Pacific coast as well you know where San Diego and Tijuana are, the natural ecosystems there have been really strongly impacted. So there are a lot of species there that are barely hanging on and are about to go extinct essentially. That’s obviously from the perspective of those species and the conservation of those ecosystems.
Q: The Senate is preparing to likely block President Trump’s declaration of the national emergency, but if the president were to veto that resolution and then hypothetically if all legal challenges to that resolution were to fail and he got his ideal vision for the wall, what steps could environmentalists and environmental groups take to remedy that kind of damage or are there any steps you can take to remedy that damage?
Lasky: There some things that can’t you can’t mitigate in any way because they’re too dramatic, but it sort of would I guess make even more important the conservation efforts on the other side of the border protecting natural habitats and wildlife. There are lots of people working in border regions trying to protect natural habitats and wildlife, so you know I guess their efforts have become much more important as as you get this you major disturbance occurring.
Q: And finally I just kind of wanted your opinion as someone from a science background, but what are your thoughts on the Green New Deal as a policy?
Lasky: I guess I haven’t seen much specific on it yet. I think that the threats of climate change are really large and not appreciated by people because there are long term threats, but I think it’s a huge challenge and perhaps the biggest one of our lifetime that we’ve been really dramatically behind, to the extent that we’re going to make some major policy efforts to deal with it. I think that’s great. And you know there are obvious opportunities for technology development associated with this kind of planning or control of carbon emissions that you can see benefiting people.
I guess I don’t know too much about the sell for it being called the “New Deal,” or if part of the sell is that there will be a lot of job opportunities in certain new industries. It makes sense and I think you see it happening in other places where people are really investing in the science and technology to sort of start these new industries. But yeah I mean we are amazingly behind on the problem, so we need to make some big strides to catch up on it. I’m supportive of the general, and my sense is that there isn’t necessarily a single set of specifics associated with that yet, which is fine from my perspective.
More on the Subject
A U.S. judge ruled against a butterfly sanctuary that had sued to keep President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall from cutting the refuge in two.
For months the National Butterfly Center has been arguing that the wall would be devastating for those insects and other creatures living in the habitat in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.
As many as 200 species of butterfly live in the sanctuary, as do bobcats, coyotes, skunk pigs, armadillos and Texas turtles.