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BioDiv tells UN that U.S. has 'obligation' to protect species threatened by border wall

A Tucson-based environmental group, along with representatives of the Tohono O'odham Nation in Sonora, and a coalition of Mexican environmental groups are pushing for the United Nations to investigate the environmental consequences of the Trump administration's plans to build a border wall along the northern edge of a nature preserve in Mexico. 

The Center for Biological Diversity, along with Greenpeace México, Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental Fronteras Comunes, or CEDMA, the Conservation of Marine Mammals of Mexico, and the Wildlands Network, submitted a petition to the United Nations on Tuesday, urging the diplomatic body to investigate how a 30-foot high "impenetrable" border wall would harm the El Pinacante Reserve, a region of desert that was added to the World Heritage List in 2013. 

The petition asks the World Heritage Committee, a part of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, to identify the site as "in danger." 

"Trump’s border wall is wrong for so many reasons," said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity and one of the petition's authors. "The proposed border wall will forever divide essential habitat for endangered Sonoran Desert wildlife, threatening both these animals and the incredible World Heritage Site designated to protect them." 

"Unfortunately, Mexico’s El Pinacate World Heritage Site and much of its incredible wildlife are now threatened by U.S. President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall, which is intended to prevent immigration between the two nations," wrote Uhlemann in the petition. The wall, she wrote, "will stretch the entire length of El Pinacate’s northern border, creating a permanent, impassable barrier for El Pinacate’s wildlife and dividing the Sonoran ecosystem in two, potentially forever." 

The center, a nonprofit environmental organization that has used activism and lawsuits in the past to force federal officials to follow environmental regulations, has already engaged the Trump administration directly over the proposed wall. 

Last month, the group, along with U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, sued the Trump administration in a bid to force force officials with the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection to undertake a "comprehensive review of the social, economic, and environmental costs of the border wall."

The 2,700-square mile reserve, which includes the El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve, runs along the U.S.-Mexico border for about 112 miles, and includes numerous species that regularly cross the border, including the Sonoran pronghorn, bighorn sheep, pygmy owl, and the northern jaguar. 

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The El Pinacate's diverse landscape hosts "extraordinary habitat diversity," and includes more than 540 species of plants, 44 mammals, 225 different species of birds, and more than 40 different reptiles, including species that only live in the Sonoran desert, wrote Uhlemann. 

UNESCO should review the potential harm a wall could cause to the reserve, the groups said.

There are currently 1,052 world heritage sites, including 34 that are considered "transboundary." The World Heritage List shows that 55 are considered in danger, including cultural heritage sites in Afghanistan, and natural heritage sites in Central Africa, and South America. 

The United States, along with 192 other nations, signed the agreement that guides world heritage sites in 1972. 

In the U.S., Everglades National Park, along the southern tip of Florida, was marked as in danger in 2010 due to pollution, urban development, and water conservation problems. 

U.S. border areas have been deemed critical to the survival and recovery of many of El Pinacate's species, wrote Uhlemann. This includes the Sonoran pronghorn, which is already in trouble. 

Marked as critically endangered following decades of historic hunting, drought and habitat fragmentation, only about 979 of the animals are known to exist in the U.S. and Mexico, and the group believes that the construction of a new wall would permanently split the species' northern and southern populations, and risking extinction. 

"We reject the idea of building a wall that separates the two nations and their peoples, and a wall’s impact on border ecosystems could be disastrous," said Gustavo Ampugnani, executive director of Greenpeace México. "A wall would fragment habitat and limit the free movement of species like jaguar, affecting their genetic reproduction."

Pronghorn need vast, unencumbered open range so the animals can travel long distances in search of food and rarely jump fences. The animals have been known to try to crawl underneath fences, but unless a fence is raised 16 inches above the ground, it is "impassable to pronghorn," the group said. 

The wall could also harm the endangered jaguar, bighorn sheep, and even low-flying owls.  

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The wall could also harm the Tohono O'odham people, who are already divided by the international boundary, activists said. Around two-thirds of the 2,000 O'odham people who live in Sonora are legal members of the Tohono O'odham Nation, which extends across the border, and hundreds of others have family connections to the community in Arizona.

"Trump’s wall will completely uproot and permanently destroy our way of life, our himdag; what and who we are," said Jose Martin Garcia Lewis, governor general of the O’odham in Sonora, Mexico. 

"It will deny our shared cultural and religious practice in the Pinacate: our Salt Ceremony and pilgrimage, our collection of medicinal plants, visitation to burial sites and sacred cave sites, and plant life. It will, under international law, illegally sever our communications with and access to the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona," he said. 

On Tuesday, the Trump administration submitted a proposed budget seeking just $1.6 billion for the construction of a new wall, as part of a long-term push to build more border defenses. 

The White House said it was seeking $2.6 billion for construction of the wall, including $999 million for the "planning, design, and construction" of the first installment of the border wall." 

Estimates for the total cost of a new wall vary widely, however, an internal estimate by DHS said that the wall would cost as much as $21.6 billion and take more than three years to construct. 

However, an estimate released by members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee reported that the wall could cost up to $66.9 billion, with another $150 million in annual maintenance costs. 

In March, Customs and Border Protection began accepting proposals for the design and construction of prototypes for two kinds of walls along the southern border, including a "physically imposing" wall of reinforced concrete. 

The proposal said the wall should be about 30 feet high, but added that it could be as low as 18 feet in some places. The current bollard-style fencing in Arizona rises to about 18 feet in many areas. 

"Offerers should consider this height, but designs with heights of at least 18 feet may be acceptable," the proposal documents said. "Designs with heights of less than 18 feet are not acceptable."

"The government's nominal concept is a 30-foot high wall," the agency said. 

If the petition is successful, UNESCO will work with the United States and Mexico to set "corrective actions" to avoid harm to the World Heritage site, said Uhlemann.  However, the UN body does not have the legal authority to force the United States to act, she said.

"The petition will highlight what an ecological disaster the wall is, and it gives the international community the chance to weigh in," said Uhlemann. "The United States made a commitment to protect these sites, and has an obligation under treaty to protect this place." 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

The 'bollard' fence near Nogales, Arizona.