Bush administration ignores laws to continue construction of border wall in protected public conservation area

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to waive laws in response to federal judge’s decision halting border wall construction in San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area

(10/22/2007) - WASHINGTON – Defenders of Wildlife has been informed that Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), will waive a number of laws in order to resume construction of a border wall and road in the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (NCA) in southeastern Arizona. Under Section 102 of the REAL ID Act, passed in May 2005, Chertoff has now waived environmental, cultural and numerous other laws in three separate instances to allow border wall construction through fragile habitat.  

“The issue here is whether wildlife and other sensitive environmental values will be given fair consideration in the decisions the government makes,” said Robert Dreher, vice president for conservation law for Defenders of Wildlife. “In the past, Secretary Chertoff himself has acknowledged the border wall’s inherent failures, and yet he still chose to bypass our nation’s laws to plow forward with the administration’s destructive, ineffective plan.”

“It isn’t too much to ask that DHS and other government agencies comply with our nation’s environmental laws in Arizona, particularly where international treasures like the San Pedro River are at stake,” added Dreher. “The Department of Homeland Security has already acknowledged the need to do an environmental impact statement for similar wall construction along the Texas border.”

Sec. Chertoff’s decision to invoke the REAL ID waiver came in response to an October 10 order by U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle temporarily halting construction in the San Pedro Riparian NCA. Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club, the conservation groups that brought the case, condemned Sec. Chertoff’s move as short-sighted, choosing to sacrifice an internationally-recognized wildlife preserve in order to rush construction of a section of border wall. The REAL ID Act gives Chertoff the authority to waive any and all laws of the United States in order to expedite construction of barriers and walls along the border.

“We can secure our borders while we protect our public lands,” said Sean Sullivan with the Sierra Club’s Rincon (southeastern Arizona) Group. “Bulldozing the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area and our important environmental protections is not necessary to manage the border.”

Lawyers for the two conservation organizations appeared before Judge Huvelle on Oct. 10 to argue for a temporary restraining order to halt construction until an appropriate assessment could be made regarding the impact of the wall on wildlife and protected federal public lands. Judge Huvelle granted the restraining order that same day.

Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club went to court after the Department of the Interior ignored an earlier formal appeal for a comprehensive assessment of the environmental impacts and began immediate construction on the San Pedro segment of border wall. The groups chose to take legal action over this particular border wall segment because of the environmental and international significance of the San Pedro conservation area.

The San Pedro River is one of the last free-flowing rivers in the southwestern United States, and one of the few perennial streams flowing from the mountains of Mexico into the United States.  Its natural beauty and diverse wildlife attract visitors from around the globe. The conservation area through which it runs is one of America’s most unique and biologically diverse areas. The San Pedro region has been designated as a World Heritage Natural Area by the United Nations World Heritage program. Some 250 species of migratory birds have been recorded in the area, which led to its designation as a Globally Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society, American Bird Conservancy, and the International Commission for Environmental Cooperation. 

“Today’s decision by DHS to invoke the REAL ID waiver in this case highlights the need for Congress to step in with legislation that would secure the nation’s border while still being mindful of impacts to the environment and local communities,” said Dreher.

Congressman Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) has already introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would secure America’s border with Mexico while reducing the negative impact on local communities and resources, including national parks, wildlife refuges and monuments that are home to several critically endangered species. H.R. 2593, the Borderlands Security and Conservation Act of 2007, would amend existing immigration and border security laws, including REAL ID and the Secure Fence Act, to help alleviate the  impacts of border enforcement activities on public lands, wildlife and borderland communities.

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Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.  With more 1 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come.  For more information, visit www.defenders.org.

The Sierra Club is America's oldest, largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization. Inspired by nature, the Sierra Club’s 1.3 million members and supporters, including the 14,000 members of Arizona’s Grand Canyon Chapter, work together to protect our communities and the planet. www.sierraclub.org

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Contact(s):

Joe Vickless, Defenders of Wildlife, (202)772-0237, (724)344-8995 (cell)
Matt Clark, Defenders of Wildlife, (520)623-9653, (520)307-0956 (cell)
Sean Sullivan, Sierra Club, (520) 250-9040

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