Rewilding the Wall – Part One
The United States of America’s southern border with the United Mexican States (Mexico’s official name) is a hot-button topic fraught with controversy. There are very real, very complex issues at play here, ideas polarized by politicians on both sides of the aisle and border, plagued by five-hundred years of colonialism and land-grabbing. This article will not linger on those human issues over which entire lifetimes have been dedicated to the study and understanding. Instead, it will propose realistic, near-term ways in which the US-Mexico border wall can be rewilded while all federal and state governments can maintain their current positions as more qualified thinkers work on comprehensive solutions. Tactically, the focus will be on the Chihuahuan Desert region of southern New Mexico, west Texas, northern Chihuahua, and northern Coahuila: four states bound by geography and history but divided by vastly differing political climates.
The Chihuahuan Desert remains at once North America’s most known yet most misunderstood desert. This is, after all, the place Oppenheimer nuked. Not home to iconic flora like the Sonoran’s saguaro and organ pipe cacti or the Mojave’s Joshua trees and palms, the Chihuahuan Desert can’t be defined by a single image because of how elevation and human manipulation have shaped it over time. The Chihuahuan Desert is sky-island pine and oak forests atop jagged mountains. The Chihuahuan Desert is river gorges of agave and yucca. The Chihuahuan Desert is gypsum dunes and lava flows visible from space. The Chihuahuan Desert is the birthplace of one of the first distilled spirits. The Chihuahuan Desert was one of the few places on the continent to host North America’s Big Five Carnivores: the grizzly bear, the black bear, the wolf, the mountain lion, and the jaguar. A unique place exists at the convergence of the Neotropical and Nearctic zoological regions and is home to hundreds of endemic species. A desert worth preserving.
Many stretches of the Chihuahuan Desert more resembled the infamous American prairie than a “true” desert. Grass once grew “belly-high to a horse” in northern and eastern parts of the region until Mexican and American settlers encroached on the indigenous tribes subsisting off the migrating game and an intricate knowledge of edible plants like sotol, agave, and prickly pear. Fences and cattle came first, oil and mineral prospectors next, then the highways and progress; now, Chihuahuan Desert grasslands are nearly gone and the native flora is often reduced to mesquite monoculture coppice dunes: a sign of an impacted arid land. All this, bisected by an international border stretching through the grasslands and coppice dunes and mountains, all the way to the river that once gave the whole desert life. Even now, Texas continues to install a floating border spaced with circular saws along the Rio Grande Valley with unknown intention to complete the whole thing all the way to El Paso.
Given this climate, rewilding corridors across the border seems daunting. Yet, it is possible with the right cooperation. Our best hope at preventing more walls from going up and bringing down the ones that already exist comes from ourselves and the genius of our technological inventions.
In the last several years, United States Customs and Border Patrol have been testing a new technological device called the Autonomous Surveillance Tower (AST). (All of the following information is in the public domain.) These ASTs are remote sensors: think a gigantic solar-powered camera trap with advanced sensing capabilities but instead of strapped to a tree it sits atop a thirty-foot extensible tower and provides real-time day-and-thermal footage to anywhere via satellite connection. Pretty impressive camera trap. Easily deployed with three pickup trucks, these towers can monitor nearly anywhere four-wheel drive can go. Using the power of artificial intelligence, the AST’s algorithm can accurately differentiate a human being from any other object within its one-and-a-half-mile diameter. This alert can then be validated by on-the-ground agents who could interdict any potential illegal border crossings with live intelligence on the size and composition of the group of people. Those informed insights allow well-trained officials to make better decisions when intercepting potentially harmful crossers versus migrants seeking humanitarian aid. These quick-reaction forces could be better informed and more expeditiously allocated.
This upgrade in technological monitoring and agent allocation means unwalled sections of borderland can maintain constant, low-touch surveillance without a complete revolution in thinking by Customs and Border Patrol. This is something already in motion: these ASTs have been tested in sections of south-central Texas and rural San Diego County, California, to rave reviews by Border Patrol agents and proving their efficacy across both desert and the Rio Grande. This author has also personally observed them deployed along New Mexico Route Nine outside Columbus, New Mexico, monitoring sections of already-completed border wall.
This author would like to propose a step further to allow for the natural flow of wildlife through their historic ranges and afford the evolutionary process the space to conduct its pan-generational work. Imagine a network of ASTs deployed one to one-and-a-half miles apart across the frontera in preserved wilderness spaces with state and federal agents in quick-reaction force positions and aided by drone technology. Sections of the wall can come down. It sounds like science fiction, but it’s all real and possible in relatively short order.
Aside from potentially improved security, imagine the good science that can be captured from those remote sensors. Federal biologists with security clearances, employed by CBP or US Fish and Wildlife Service or An-Agency-To-Be-Named-Later, could monitor wildlife activity from ASTs. It doesn’t have to be real-time, but these data sets, scrubbed of humans and uploaded in batches, can help inform wildlife crossing activity at a large scale.
Conservationists have to work within the constructs of the countries in which they operate, the United States being no different. The lightly-populated and highly-endangered Chihuahuan Desert remains the perfect place to test these methodologies, which could then be selectively applied across the other deserts and down the fertile Rio Grande Valley, where the border controversy is most volatile. This is an opportunity for local, regional, national, and international conservation organizations to coalesce around an achievable victory in partnership with government agencies incentivized by the low-cost possibilities.
With smart solutions, wildlands can stay wild. Thirteen percent of the border exists among Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, and Black Gap Wildlife Management Area in Texas, Santa Elena Canyon Protected Area in Chihuahua, and Maderas del Carmen and Ocampo Protected Areas in Coahuila: two biosphere reserves and millions of acres of preserved wildernesses that can stay unwalled (floating or otherwise). Even if the near-century-old dream of an international park may be challenging in the current climate, nature won’t mind if given the space to function. After all, that’s how the black bear came back to join the mountain lion in Texas, potentially paving the way for the lobo and the jaguar. These carnivores and their prey will be isolated on their respective riverbanks should governments continue to impose their walled will. Stalwart champions like Rick LoBello (Education Curator at the El Paso Zoo, Chair of the Chihuahuan Desert Education Coalition, and a storied international conservationist) will continue to fight for their cause and Greater Big Bend.
Part Two of this article will explore a nascent and radical opportunity to create a conservation corridor amidst the borderland’s largest urban area: El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, sister cities inextricably linked by tens of thousands of years of human history, the mountains that flank them, and the river that cuts through it all.
For more information on organizations working in this region check out:
- Frontera Land Alliance
- Sierra de Juárez Colectivo
- El Paso Zoo
- Chihuahuan Desert Education Coalition
- Texas Lobo Coalition
- Texas Native Cats
Jon Rezendes is a former US Army infantry combat veteran, Ranger Instructor, and graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Since leaving service, Jon works for a decarbonization-focused software company and dedicates his life to the preservation of wilderness with his wife, a certified associate wildlife biologist and PhD student, and their two children. In his spare time, Jon is a member of the Board of Directors of the Texas Lobo Coalition and the Frontera Land Alliance.