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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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Desert tortoise with desert dandelion.
The policy was enacted with the explicit intention of forcing immigrants to cross the border in more remote areas, which would supposedly make it easier for border patrol agents to catch them. The results have been disastrous—more than 5,000 people have died of thirst and starvation in the harsh desert climate, and the lands and wildlife have been impacted by human trash, new roads and an influx of foot and vehicle traffic trampling sensitive habitat.

In 2007, construction of the wall began, and today one-third of the border consists of concrete barriers and steel fences, in some places extending 21 feet tall and dug six feet underground. The wall has exacerbated both the impacts to wildlife and dangers to people.

"One of the most difficult experiences I had was visiting the pauper's graveyard in Holtville, Calif., where unidentified migrants found dead in the desert are buried," Schlyer says. "I started my work to focus on the impacts of the border wall to the environment, but it's impossible to separate the impacts to people because they're so intertwined."

From a photographic standpoint, Schlyer said her biggest challenge was accessing public lands near the border. Throughout her travels, she was routinely stopped and questioned by U.S. border patrol agents. Nearly 40 percent of the land along the U.S. side is public and includes places popular with photographers such as Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Organ Pipe Cactus National Memorial, Coronado National Monument and Big Bend National Park.

Kit foxes in the borderlands area.
"It's a sad reality that our public lands on the border and our rights to enjoy them are now so restricted," she says.

Since prehistoric times, people have always migrated from one place to another to find what they need to survive. In this respect, humans aren't much different than wildlife. And, while a wall ultimately doesn't stop people from crossing a border, it does stop wildlife from finding what they need to survive.

To help decision makers understand how special the borderlands are and shape the discussion around immigration reform, Schlyer is raising funds to give her book to every member of the U.S. Congress.

"The questions we should be asking are 'how do we best share a border with a country whose economic realities are different from our own, and how do we protect the natural world that connects us and is precious to both nations?'" Schlyer says.

Part of the solution involves listening. Listening to the desert wind whistling among the sky island mountaintops, the howl of the Mexican wolf, to the rich music of the people and to the squeaky prairie dogs beneath the grasslands of the Chihuahuan Desert.

Krista Schlyer is a writer and photographer whose work has appeared in websites and publications for the national parks, Ranger Rick and Audubon. She's an Associate Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers. You can view her work at www.enviro-pic.org.

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