By Char Miller
2:00 a.m. February 14, 2009
President George W. Bush is history. But the past has a funny way of maintaining a tight grip on the present. Just ask anyone who cares deeply about the pristine remnants of Southern California’s ancient landscape, such as the Otay Mountain Wilderness Area. Bulldozers are now rumbling through the sanctuary in eastern San Diego County, prepping the ground so that the infamous border wall can slice across its stunning array of desert scrublands, steep canyons and rugged high ground.
The small reserve – it encompasses only 18,500 acres – was established in 1999, but despite its limited size it is of crucial significance. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, San Diego contains the greatest number of threatened or endangered species in the continental United States and its high desert in particular is home to many of them. These include the Quino checkerspot butterfly, the arroyo toad and the Otay Mesa spreading mint. This often bone-dry terrain is also vital for migratory mammals such as the javelina, whose search for food, water and shelter knows nothing of national boundaries.
Sadly, this viable habitat and the rich biodiversity it has sustained for millennia are under attack. In December, Michael Chertoff, then the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, waived the Wilderness Act and a host of other protective legislation so that a contractor could scrape clean this untrammeled area. Site preparation for the border wall’s construction, which includes constructing a hardened roadway, has continued ever since.
Already, the impact is pronounced. Even in the unlikely event that the Obama administration quickly issues a stop-work order, and local environmentalists hope he will, the initial cuts for the road and fence are of such a magnitude, observed Nathan Trotter, a local activist who toured the area in late January, “that the resources needed to restore the area would be immense.”
None of this destruction needs to occur. The Border Patrol itself did not think the wall was necessary in the Otay wilderness. Richard Kite, a spokesman for the agency’s San Diego office, told reporters in 2006 after Congress passed the Safe Fence Act: “It’s such harsh terrain it’s difficult to walk, let alone drive. There’s no reason to disrupt the land when the land itself is a physical barrier.”
The EPA also cast doubt on the project. In a February 2008 letter to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, it indicated that the proposed plan was insufficient on two counts. It objected to “the filling of two well-developed riparian corridors in Copper and Buttewig canyons and has concerns regarding high potential for significantly increasing erosion in the watershed from the combination of road widening, new vehicle trail construction, fence installation on steep slopes, and fence installation across intermittent streams.” The EPA predicted these intrusions would “have unacceptable adverse impacts under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, especially considering cumulative impacts from other border fence projects that are proposed in the Tijuana River Watershed. These impacts must be avoided to provide adequate protection for the environment.”
Wilderness advocates were much more blunt in their denunciation of the administration’s decision to savage the Otay – by blasting its canyon walls, trucking out more than 500,000 cubic yards of fill, and grading and leveling a 150-foot-wide swath on which to erect the wall.
Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, lambasted the presidential decision: “Wilderness areas are designated by Congress specifically to protect sensitive places from projects like this road construction. This road sets terrible precedent and clearly demonstrates the dangers of granting the secretary of homeland security authority to waive any law in order to build walls along our international borders.” As Matt Clark, Southwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife, asserted: “Such harmful impacts to wilderness characteristics and values are clearly inconsistent with the congressional intent of the law that established the Otay Mountain Wilderness Area in 1999. The waiver and the wall are an affront to our nation’s laws and natural heritage.”
The Bush administration ignored these principled arguments and in doing so the Otay Mountain Wilderness Area, like countless other sensitive ecosystems along the U.S.-Mexico border, has paid a heavy price.
We are paying, too: By compromising the Otay’s historic function as wildlands and cutting off the javelina from its primeval habitat, and by serving as a tool for subverting national environmental regulations, the Bush wall casts a long shadow over contemporary American politics. What a grim and costly legacy.
Miller is visiting professor of environmental analysis and history at Pomona College in Claremont. He is author of “Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism” and “Deep in the Heart of Texas: Land and Life in South Texas.”