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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

On The Border

Photographers document the ecological impact of the barrier going up along the U.S.-Mexico border

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The borderlands between the United States and Mexico contain some of the richest biodiversity in North America. In January, the International League of Conservation Photographers sent a team that included photographers, writers, filmmakers and scientists to document the ecological effects of the border wall. Road cuts through the 18,500-acre Otay Mountain Wilderness Area to facilitate wall construction east of San Diego, Calif.
As she watched a herd of bison jumping over a barbed-wire fence to cross between its habitat in the United States and Mexico, Krista Schlyer’s plan for a photo expedition began to take shape. The photographer had been on assignment in New Mexico doing a story about the transboundary bison herd, which spends time in both countries. Aware of how the wall going up along the U.S.-Mexico border was harming wildlife, ecosystems and local communities, she decided that to draw more attention to the issue, she’d enlist the help of the International League of Conservation Photographers.

For more than a year, the organization has conducted Rapid Assessment Visual Expeditions (RAVE) to advance conservation around the world. The concept is that a group of photographers, writers and filmmakers go out for short periods of time to document an area and return with a thorough portrait of the issue or threat. In this case, the team included award-winning photographers like Pulitzer Prize winner Jack Dykinga, Kevin Schafer, Wendy Shattil and Roy Toft. In total, there were 13 photographers, three filmmakers and two biologists who went on the three-week trip.

“Most of the damage the wall is causing isn’t obvious,” explains Schafer, who helped create the RAVE concept and visited some of the fence areas in Texas last year. “We didn’t see animal carcasses all around, but we did see roads being carved through established wilderness areas and physical impact on a massive scale. I was aware that border fence construction was well underway and that if there was any hope of affecting policy, especially the abrogation of existing environmental regulations, we had to move quickly.”

What Schafer is referring to is one of the project’s goals, which is to reverse the REAL ID Act that passed in 2005 to speed up construction of the border wall. Under that legislation, the Department of Homeland Security was able to waive dozens of federal and state regulations, including such core environmental laws as the Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, if they interfered with construction. In April, members of the RAVE group went to Washington, D.C., to debut an exhibit of their work and meet with legislators to show their support for the Borderlands Conservation and Security Act. If passed, the bill would revoke the authority that Congress gave and would require any future building to follow those environmental laws.

Along the wall in Sonoita, Arizona.
The massive fence, intended to deter illegal immigration, runs through wildlife refuges, national monuments and other federally protected areas. It will start just outside of San Diego and run, with breaks, to Brownsville, Texas. One chunk will cover nearly 350 miles, or nearly the entire length of the California-Arizona part of the border. Of major concern to many environmental groups is the effect it will have on wildlife that depends on open migration corridors for survival. For instance, the wall will divide an ocelot population in Mexico from a small, inbred ocelot community in Texas that conservationists say needs fresh blood to survive.

Schlyer, Schafer and others had already been to fence areas in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona and had seen the effect of the barrier on migratory and endangered wildlife species. While many people in the U.S. may envision the border as barren, Schlyer says it’s anything but, with habitat and migration corridors for hundreds of endangered species, including the jaguar, Mexican gray wolf and Sonoran pronghorn.

“This is such a special location because it’s a subtropical area, which a lot of people don’t know,” Schlyer says. “Many of the species there don’t exist anywhere else. One of our main goals is to get people to see how amazing and incredibly biodiverse this region is by giving them a better picture of it, along with the damage being done from the construction.”


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