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Study: Border agents, illegal crossings harm environment

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Pronghorns graze in New Mexico a couple of miles from the Mexican border. Research by New Mexico Tech Professor Haoying Wang finds that human activity at the border is harming the border region’s environment. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Illegal immigration and the activity to stop it are having harmful effects on the environment at the border, according to research by a professor at New Mexico Tech.

Professor Haoying Wang – an environmental economist – has been studying the impact of human activity along the border with Mexico for the past two years in response to a proposal by the National Park Service.

“It’s having a very significant impact,” Wang told the Journal. He said he studied the entire Mexican border, from Texas to California.

He is using raw NASA images and large-scale sensing data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to model vegetation cover change from 2008 to 2017. Temperature and weather data are also being used.

He said the large numbers of people trying to cross the border, especially in remote areas, and the large number of agents patrolling the areas are accelerating changes that were already occurring as the result of grazing that began in the 19th century, as well as climate change. Wang said the area along the border has a much harder time recovering from the loss of vegetation because of its dry climate.

“There’s no sufficient data to determine just how many people are coming across the border,” he said. “But the number of apprehensions (from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection) is available, as is the number of border agents.”

He factored those numbers into his research. The CBP has reported more than 684,000 apprehensions in the Southwestern region since last October. In May alone, there were 144,000 apprehensions. And Wang’s study, which was also featured in the publication Physics World and originally published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, listed 20,000 Border Patrol agents working along the border.

“Typically, you have people hiding out in areas along the border for a few days or weeks,” Wang said. “They leave campfires … that can be harmful. They are leaving trash. They are also leaving trails where there hadn’t been trails before. Border Patrol agents are also creating trails with their heavy equipment.”

If trails aren’t managed, Wang said, erosion could expand. He said it would be hard for vegetation to come back.

According to Wang’s model, within a three-mile buffer of the border, a 10% increase in illegal border crossings would lead to a 13% decrease in vegetation cover. A 10% increase in border staffers would lead to an additional 135% decrease, because of the heavy equipment and vehicles they use.

Wang said the harmful effects can be reversed and is consulting with the National Park Service about how to do so. He said that a reduction in illegal crossings would likely help but that over-aggressive measures to stop illegal immigration could actually do more harm to the environment.

The loss of vegetation is causing a number of harmful effects. Native grassland absorbs more carbon dioxide than barren areas or shrubbery that is replacing it in some of the areas. Native vegetation binds the soil, absorbs rainwater into underground aquifers, prevents soil erosion and flooding and provides feed for livestock.

Encroachment of woody plants and brush is also an issue. Wang said those plants are “more resistant to change.” He said native grasses are less resistant.

He has been collaborating with the National Park Service, which he said is doing a good job maintaining trails on land it manages.

But that is not the case with other areas along the border.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt listed damage to the environment by illegal crossings among the justifications for transferring 560 acres – 213 in New Mexico – of federal lands to the Department of the Army to build roughly 70 miles of border barriers.

“Wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, as well as species and vegetation are adversely impacted by land degradation and destruction caused by the creation of trails, the deposition of trash, and unlawful fires, among other things. Construction of border barriers will reduce or eliminate these impacts and preserve values that will otherwise be lost,” the Department of the Interior said in a release this week.

Wang said border wall construction may cause harm to the environment, at least short term.

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