Interior official: Border wall helps environment, sacred sites

Border wall construction has triggered a raft of environmental lawsuits, including over the destruction of Native American sacred ancestral sites.

A sign indicating a restoration area near the United States-Mexico border wall south of Ajo, Ariz. (Sandy Huffaker/AFP via Getty Images)
A sign indicating a restoration area near the United States-Mexico border wall south of Ajo, Ariz. (Sandy Huffaker/AFP via Getty Images)
Posted February 26, 2020 at 7:09pm

An Interior Department official defended the Trump administration’s construction of the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico as an environmental good, arguing that erecting that barrier will help at-risk plants, animals and Native American cultural sites from damage even as lawsuits allege otherwise.

Testifying Wednesday before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States at a hearing about the destruction of tribal sites and artifacts, Scott Cameron said a border wall would benefit the regional environment.

“If you’re limiting the traffic, those resources are easier to restore and less likely to be damaged,” said Cameron, principal deputy assistant secretary for policy, management and budget at Interior.

The border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, a hallmark of President Donald Trump’s political campaigns and his time in the White House, has triggered a raft of environmental lawsuits, including over the destruction of ancestral sites sacred to Native Americans, which federal agencies have been detonating with explosives to clear space for wall construction. 

[Ocelots, butterflies in path of border wall]

While the Trump White House has sought deep cuts in environmental and renewable energy programs across the federal government, including at the EPA and Energy and Interior departments, it has called for funding increases at the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Justice Department. That unit is responsible for much of the federal litigation about the wall, and the administration has used that money to hire more lawyers in anticipation of incoming lawsuits beginning in 2017.

Ned Norris, chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation, a tribe of more than 34,000 citizens in Arizona, told the subcommittee the government has not consulted his tribe.

The tribe’s historic lands extend well beyond its reservation today, which abuts a 62-mile stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border. Federal agencies have failed to properly consult him or other tribal officials over detonations at several sites, such as Monument Hill, Norris said. 

“I didn’t learn about the blasting until the day of,” Norris said of one case, adding of the wall, “I find it very hard to believe that the effort will help protect sacred sites.”

Asked by Rep. Jesús “Chuy” Garcia, D-Ill., if the administration “adequately” consulted with tribes about detonations, Cameron demurred. “Adequacy is probably in the eye of the beholder.”

Neither Cameron nor Republicans disputed that description of the Customs and Border Protection blasting in Arizona or destruction of cultural sites in connection with wall construction.

Keeping out waste

Interior and the Department of Homeland Security, which includes CBP, “talk almost daily” about southern border activities, Cameron said. He added that the wall would help keep out debris and personal belongings undocumented migrants leave behind while crossing the border.

“The southern border is a major entry point for criminals, gang members, and illicit narcotics,” he said in written testimony. “Along this border, cultural resources, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, plants and animals are adversely impacted by land degradation and destruction from trails, trash, fires and other activities related to unlawful border crossings.”

Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., bristled at Cameron’s statement that the wall would keep out waste. “You can’t equate sacred sites and burial grounds with trash,” Haaland said. “The damage that the administration is doing to this area is irreparable.”

Democrats likened the destruction of sacred sites along the border to the president’s threat in early January to target militarily 52 sites sacred to Iranian culture. Military strikes on such sites likely would be war crimes, they said.

“How is what is happening here any different?” Haaland said. “It’s sacrilegious.”

Norris sat at the witness table, crying. A man behind him passed forward a tissue and they sobbed. 

“It’s totally disturbed,” Norris said of his tribe's sacred lands. “Totally forever damaged.” 

Under federal law that dates to the George W. Bush administration, the executive branch can waive legal restrictions — including environmental protections — that apply to barriers and walls.

The Bush administration used it four times and the Obama administration did not use it at all, said Sarah Krakoff, a professor at the University of Colorado Law School. The Trump administration has used it 15 times, she said. “The waivers have covered lands in California, New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona, and typically apply to between 29 and 37 statutes.”

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