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Congressional watchdog describes environmental damage caused by border wall

PHOENIX (AP) — Construction of a wall along the US-Mexico border under former President Donald Trump has toppled countless saguaro cacti in Arizona, endangered endangered ocelots in Texas and disrupted Native American cemeteries, the official congressional watchdog said Thursday. .

A report released by the Government Accountability Office offers the first independent assessment of the damage caused by the construction of more than 450 miles (724 km) of wall as extensive environmental studies have been waived and the concerns of Native American tribes have been largely ignored in the rush to complete the barrier.

Now, US Customs and Border Protection and the Department of the Interior should work together to mitigate the damage, the GAO said. He recommended that agencies coordinate to decide how much repair work will cost, how to fund it, and how long it will take.

A Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said Wednesday the agency was working on a response to the report. A Home Office spokeswoman said the agency would not comment.

“What makes Trump’s border wall so egregious is that his administration waived dozens of environmental, public health, cultural preservation and even government procurement laws to build it,” said U.S. Representative Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from southern Arizona who has sought the GAO’s review. “Even before construction began, communities, tribes and other stakeholders were sounding the alarm about the colossal damage that would result from circumventing these fundamental protections. »

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Grijalva said he urges fellow lawmakers to transfer at least $225 million from Homeland Security to the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service in the next budget for restoration efforts.

Trump and his supporters have argued that a strong physical barrier along the border is needed to keep out drugs and people trying to enter the United States illegally.

“We have applied a balanced and common-sense approach to address environmental concerns while prioritizing our primary objective of securing the country’s border to reduce a wide range of complex threats from the ‘entering the United States,’ said Acting Director of Customs and Border Protection Mark Morgan. commissioner under the Trump administration.

“On a personal note, if we disrupt a butterfly’s habitat or a few cacti die in exchange for disrupting the cartel’s operational ability to threaten the safety and national security of our country, I agree with that. compromise,” said Morgan, now a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. “The wall saved lives and disrupted the cartel’s ability to improve its operational control of our country’s borders. »

Environmental groups said the GAO report confirmed their earlier complaints. They said future repair work could benefit from greater involvement from the Interior Ministry, the main manager of the federal territory where most of the damage took place.

“We hope this report will help people understand the degree of destruction the wall has actually inflicted,” said Laiken Jordahl, Southwest conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, among the groups consulted.

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A key aspect of the report was “to identify the fact that the Home Office needs to play a greater role in repairing the damage”, said Michael Dax, Western Program Director of the Wildlands Network, who also provided his contribution to GAO.

Emily Burns, program director of the environmental group Sky Islands Alliance, called it ‘refreshing to see the responsibility of the federal government'”

The border stretches approximately 3,200 km along California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Sections of what Trump called his “big and beautiful wall” were installed between January 2017 and January 2021 by contractors from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Defense.

President Joe Biden suspended construction after taking office in January 2021.

For the report, GAO consulted with federal agencies, as well as nongovernmental environmental groups. He also sought advice from the Tohono O’odham tribe, which has a large reservation that includes parts of Arizona and Sonora, Mexico; and the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians in California.

People consulted told the GAO that construction in parts of Texas’ Rio Grande Valley has fragmented the endangered ocelot’s habitat by blocking its cross-border access and putting it at risk of extinction.

The GAO has learned that the lighting along the border is interfering with bird migration and the feeding habits of some species. Larger animals, such as big cats and pronghorns, which previously crossed the border through vehicle barriers with wider openings, are now blocked by tall steel bollards erected inches apart.

Many saguaro cacti in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert were toppled during construction, and in some areas at least half of those transplanted elsewhere later died.

Damage was also reported in Quitobaquito Springs, an oasis several hundred yards from the border inside the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The area includes the sacred burial grounds of the Tohono O’odham people.

The GAO said Customs and Border Protection subsequently addressed construction-related security risks, such as constructing concrete flood walls to secure earth levees in the Rio Grande Valley in the Texas.

But the watchdog said further action was needed.

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