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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Continental Divide

A photographer documents the ecological impacts of the border wall between the United States and Mexico

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Wildlife refuge staff Nancy Brown at a wall construction site.
The species that sparked Schlyer's interest in documenting the impacts of an impenetrable border wall was the American bison. In 2007, the year construction of the wall began, she watched two bison jump over a broken-down barbed-wire fence as she flew above them in a small research plane. On the ground, she talked with landowners on either side of the fence, which at the time served as the international line separating the United States and Mexico. The U.S. rancher in Hidalgo County, New Mexico, and the Mexican rancher in the Janos region of Chihuahua told her that a bison herd hops the fence almost daily because the healthiest grassland is to the north and the main water source is to the south.

"It was an 'aha' moment for me," she says. "Knowing where border policy was headed with plans to build a wall, and seeing the impact it would have on the bison, I knew how important this issue was to many species."

For the next five years, Schlyer traveled extensively in the borderlands, photographing wildlife and talking to residents in both countries. She came to know and love the region, and described it as a place "where beauty and life spring out of a brown hard crust of ground; where rivers live in trees during the day and their beds at night; and where bighorn sheep carry maps of desert water in their brains."

It's also a place where the future of several endangered species depends upon the connectivity of the region, including the Mexican gray wolf, jaguar, ocelot, jaguarundi, Sonoran pronghorn and bighorn sheep. And, as the effects of global warming intensify droughts, animals like javelinas in Mexico that can't adapt to changing conditions will need to migrate north. They'll face a wall, and extinction. As individual species of the borderlands are impacted, entire ecosystems unravel.

After traveling the U.S.-Mexico border wall for 100 yards, looking for a place to cross, these javelina turned away. This stretch of wall in Arizona bisects the San Pedro River corridor, one of the last free-flowing rivers in the state and a haven for wildlife traveling north and south.
Just as the wildlife of the region share these lands, so have people for thousands of years. The earliest known inhabitants were the indigenous Hohokam and Tohono O'odham, followed by Apaches, Spaniards, Mexicans and Americans. It wasn't until 1853, five years after the end of the Mexican-American War, that the Gadsden Purchase expanded U.S. holdings and set today's boundary line between the United States and Mexico. The 2,000-mile border runs along parts of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. On the Mexican side, the border touches the states of Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León and Tamaulipas.

Most border towns today are a testament to the region's rich history of overlapping cultures, Schlyer says, and "abound in Spanish missionary-style architecture, roadside shrines, Mexican cuisine, native art and a Western mentality."

While Schlyer has studied the immigration and national security policies that led to the construction of the border wall, she didn't fully realize the impacts to people until her boots hit the ground. And while the media portrays the U.S.-Mexico border as a dangerous place of drug runners and illegal immigrants, Schlyer saw a different reality throughout her travels in both countries. Prior to 1994, Mexican migrants seeking work safely crossed the border at San Diego, California, and El Paso, Texas, cities with roads and infrastructure. In 1994, President Clinton launched "Operation Gatekeeper," a U.S. immigration policy that tightened restrictions at these two crossings.

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