The Borderlands - a Story of its Wildlife, Landscape, People - and The Wall
The International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) sent a team of world-renowned photographers, with writers, filmmakers and scientists to the borderlands of the United States and Mexico to document the wildlife, ecology, and effect of immigration and the border wall on this landscape. This region is a shared conservation treasure of international importance that harbors some of the most biodiverse landscapes on the continent. Many species here are found nowhere else in the US, and nowhere else in Mexico and some are found nowhere else on Earth.
Art for Conservation partnered with Borderlands Rave coordinator Krista Schlyer and iLCP in creating a 30 print canvas giclee exhibition that is currently touring across the United States. See the images below.
To purchase fine art prints from the exhibition, availble as both photo prints and canvas giclees, click here. All proceeds will go towards travel costs for the exhibit.
Landscapes and ecosystems in the borderlands range from sand dunes and arid mountains to riparian corridors to tropical scrub forests peppered with birds, butterflies and tree frogs. Some are remote and others are islands of natural beauty in urban centers. This dunescape in the Gran Desierto in Mexico shows the land’s interaction with wind and water, mountain and sky. Creatures great and small from endemic dune beetles and bees to desert tortoises and bighorn sheep call this landscape home.
The borderlands from California to Texas are the domain of some very charismatic creatures, including these bighorn sheep. History and human development have taken a great toll on populations of bighorn and other large mammals. The future offers us the opportunity to restore some of the habitat that once sustained these species, but barriers to their movement will forever impede this recovery. Almost two-thirds of the border remains wall-free, and those areas that currently have wall can be altered and past damage mitigated.
The Janos-Hidalgo herd, found in the borderlands of New Mexico, is one of five free roaming herds of plains bison left in North America. An international consortium of scientists identified this herd as critical in the current effort to restore bison to their historical role in grassland ecology—an opportunity that exists in very few places on the continent. The Janos-Hidalgo herd has been crossing the border for 80 years, accessing scarce water and food resources on either side of the borderline. Current barrier construction will end this passage, threaten the survival of the herd, and destroy hopes for the recovery of this keystone species in the region.
Return of the BEAR
Transboundary conservation efforts in Texas and northeastern Mexico have been helping to reconnect this landscape after a century of degradation. Wildlife is beginning to respond. Black bears, which had been extirpated from Big Bend National Park in Texas, have now returned via established corridors from Maderas del Carmen Biosphere Reserve in Mexico. All of this effort and the successes that have come from it, could not have happened had the border here been blocked by a wall. If the current policy continues, human traffic will likely shift to remote areas like this, and walls will follow close behind.
Grasslands, now one of the most imperiled ecosystems in the world, once provided a home to
50 million bison, which roamed the vast plains of North America, and to prairie dog colonies that created burrow homes for countless species. These grasslands near Janos, Mexico, sit less than an hour south of the border and extend far north into New Mexico. Researchers here are working to reconnect and rebuild this remnant grassland and restore its inhabitants, but barrier construction threatens to block wildlife at the border.
Here, as in all places where the wall is being built, it is clear that human beings will find ways to get around, over or through it. What is equally apparent, is the psychological symbolism of walls between human communities, as is so clearly illustrated by this image of a child playing on a beach in Tijuana, in the shadow of the border wall.
The creation of the Lower Rio Grande Valley wildlife corridor has been a Herculean effort of 30 years, made possible by the dedication and effort of volunteers and national wildlife refuge staff like. So little habitat is left in this ecosystem - less than 5 percent - that restoring and reconnecting what habitat remains is crucial to the future of endangered species like the ocelot and jaguarundi. But the border wall threatens to unravel all that has been accomplished in this rare ecoregion.
Miguel de la Cueva
In much the same way that borderlands wildlife are dependent on the plant communities that comprise their habitat, many plant species are dependent on wildlife to help them distribute their seeds and migrate when climatic conditions become unsuitable for them. Species with largely plant-based diets, like javelina, rabbits and many species of birds and bats, can be important seed dispersers. Walls that block the movement of animals may also block the migration of some plants. With droughts becoming more frequent in the Southwest, the survival of any plant species’ may depend on the ability to move freely.
In places, such as the Barry M. Goldwater Range and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, the border wall continues for 35 miles unbroken. Humans know where it ends and can find their way around. Many animals cannot. Sonoran desert toads have been seen and photographed standing at the wall, or even jumping repeatedly into it, trying to get through until they die of dehydration or are eaten by predators.
The Algodones Dunes in southern California and northern Baja California, Mexico, appear from the sky as a blank landscape—the only identifying features being softly undulating dunes, and now an odd line of metal bisecting them. On closer inspection this landscape reveals its secrets—the Algodones are a globally unique ecosystem, with wild creatures found nowhere else on the planet. At least 16 endemic species of beetles, bees and ants make their homes here. They share these dunes with the more common coyotes and rattlesnakes, as well as rare plants, desert tortoises, horned lizards and many others.
Near the edge of the Pacific Ocean, with Tijuana on one side and San Diego on the other, lies a place called Friendship Park. The park was designated in the 1970s as an international meeting ground—a place where friends and families living on opposite sides of the border could meet and share a picnic, and where musicians came to entertain them. First Lady Pat Nixon, who attended the dedication, spoke these words: “I hate to see a fence anywhere.” Friendship Park has in the past year been declared off limits to the public, and what was a low wire fence in Nixon’s time, has become a 15 foot steel wall.
The kit fox is one member of a diverse group of grassland species that now thrive on open range in northwestern Chihuahua in Mexico, just a dozen miles south of the border. But climates are changing and droughts becoming more frequent, a trend that is expected to worsen as the effects of global warming continue to mount. The ability to move freely, particularly northward, may determine the fate of kit fox and many other terrestrial species in the region. Walls and other barriers now being constructed by the United States may decide the fate of them all.
This ocelot was not photographed on the Borderlands RA VE, or even in the borderlands. Though he small cat once ranged all throughout south Texas and into Louisiana and Arkansas, there are now less than 100 in the U.S.—all confined to small patches of remnant habitat in the lower Rio Grande valley. Like many endangered species in the borderlands, from jaguarundi to Mexican gray wolves, the ocelot’s future stands on a knife’s edge, and any further loss of habitat or habitat connectivity could end its existence in the United States.
Numerous are the moments in history where the path of the United States intersected with that of Mexico. History and our proximity have ensured that our cultures are both divergent and parallel. And all of this comes together in the borderlands, where the lines blur between American and Mexican, English and Spanish, old and new. We have much to learn from each other, as all neighbors do.
Above the law
In fall 2007, the Department of Homeland Security began constructing a wall in the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, a crucial stretch of habitat for countless species, including bobcats, mountain lions, javelina and coatimundi. Conservation groups, including the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife, sued to stop construction, and won their case in a federal district court. But the Department of Homeland Security, with the stroke of a pen waived all environmental laws, dismissed the findings of the court, and continued with construction.
The culture of the borderlands is often a blending of worlds: part Mexican and part American, some conservation and some cowboy. A person may spend part of his life living in the United States as a ranch hand, and part of it in Mexico planting native grasses and helping to restore natural flows to streambeds. Like many borderlands residents, the subject of this photo is a unique product of a unique location, where nationality matters, but it does not supersede neighborliness, and a connection to the land underlies all.
All life in the desert centers around what little water is available year-round. Watering holes like this one in the Tinajas Altas mountains of southwestern Arizona, are crucial to borderlands wildlife like bighorn sheep, Sonoran pronghorn, deer, bobcats and birds. In the past few years, construction of the U.S. border wall has placed 15 feet of steel between countless desert species
The Rio Grande River defines the U.S.-Mexico border from El Paso to Brownsville, Texas, where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The river corridor supports rare creatures like the ocelot and jaguarondi, as well as some of the oldest communities in the United States. Residents who acquired their homesteads through Spanish land grants 10 generations ago still call this land home. Border wall construction plans will require seizure of some of this land by the federal government. The wall will separate residents from large portions of their property, and from the river that drew them here in the first place.
Hundreds of birds, mammals, fish, amphibians and plants make up the community of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, which extends from the U.S.-Mexico border to 40 miles north of it. Similar riparian areas used to exist throughout the Southwest, but damming and water pumping drained and diverted most of these ecosystems. The San Pedro is therefore a magnet for wild creatures. The rich biological diversity of the river corridor has earned it designations as both a World Heritage Natural Area and a Globally Important Bird Area.
Against the wall
A lawsuit temporarily halted construction of the wall that now bisects the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area in southeastern Arizona. But because the Department of Homeland Security had been given the authority by Congress to waive all laws, the temporary restraining order issued by a federal district court judge was dismissed and construction continued. Today all passage is blocked at the border for species like javelina, along with bobcats, deer, rabbits and many others.
The Saguaro cactus is found only in the Sonoran Desert of the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. This desert spans the border and is home to a diverse array of desert wildlife including desert bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, endangered Sonoran pronghorn, bobcats and many others. As a single ecosystem, political boundaries and the infrastructure that now defines them impose an arbitrary division of a natural system.
Saguaro cactus, icon of the American Southwest, can grow to be a giant— 50 feet tall and weighing several tons. They are a plant both hardy and fragile, like the ecosystem over which they preside. Because construction of the wall was rushed and environmental laws were waived, no consultation with wildlife scientists was required. There were no studies of how severing this ecosystem and destroying a wide swath of habitat would impact the saguaro and the countless creatures that depend on it. We have left the future of this unrivaled desert icon to chance.
Our national parks, national wildlife refuges and other public lands are for many Americans sacred ground. In addition to providing rare islands of habitat for the nation’s plant and wildlife species, they are places of quiet and respite for people who need an escape from the interstate
highway pace of life. The borderlands are a Mecca of these quiet spaces. Nearly a quarter of the 1,950-mile U.S.–Mexico border lies within public lands, including Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. And all of these hallowed lands lie in the direct path of the border wall.
Green jays and similar tropical species can be found in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and nowhere else in the United States. These birds, photographed on the Audubon Sabal Palm Preserve in Brownsville, Texas, have lost 95 percent of the native habitat that once sustained them here. Wall construction is consuming more of it every day—18 feet of concrete wall is being built into the Rio Grande levee system, a levee that in some places sits a mile north of the river or more. If construction continues, much of the green jay’s remaining habitat, including this Audubon preserve, will lie south of the U.S. border wall.
The grasslands of the Southwest are home to an enduring ranching culture. Because there were no requirements to meaningfully consult with local people during wall construction, the insights and concerns of people who live on this land were largely ignored. Roads, walls and increased border patrol activity have eroded the quiet nature of the borderlands. And many have witnessed first-hand the ineffectiveness of walls as immigration policy. Most have seen people climbing over, through, or around barriers, and have noted that all the new roads border patrol has built to ease its travel, provide the same convenience for smugglers.
Javelinas help form the backbone of borderlands food chains. In addition to being important prey species for carnivores, including mountain lions, jaguars and Mexican gray wolves, javelinas offer important services to the plants they eat, carrying their seeds to new locations so plants can expand their ranges and migrate when climatic conditions require. Blocking the movement of even a single species can have broad ranging impacts that reverberate through an entire ecosystem. And in the case of javelinas, which are found all along the 2000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, any wall, anywhere in the borderlands is likely to affect them.
These wild turkeys are a few of the beneficiaries of habitat conservation in the borderlands done by private individuals hoping to restore land and migration corridors for wild creatures. The birds evoke the ancient feel of much of this landscape, so far removed from the roads and cities that have replaced natural places in so much of North America. In the wild places of the borderlands, it is possible to imagine echoes of a time before humans, when birds the size of trees roamed the land.
In 1964, the U.S. Congress passed the Wilderness Act “to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.” Since then, Congress has designated more than 700 wilderness areas, which strictly prohibit roads and cars in order to preserve wild solitude. One of those areas, the Otay Mountain Wilderness, lies in Southern California, on the U.S.-Mexico border. In December 2008, the Department of Homeland Security began slicing through the quiet Otay mountainside with roads in order to get machinery and materials to the border for wall construction. “Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed.” —Wallace Stegner