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Border wall construction ends, leaving damage and problems behind

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Posted at 8:44 PM, Jan 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-28 00:30:25-05

In one of his first acts as president, Joe Biden halted construction of the border wall. A week later, crews which had been digging through miles of Arizona desert are all but gone.

For the activists who've been fighting the wall for years, however, the work is only beginning, and they are urging the new administration to act quickly, to protect wildlife habitat and prevent more damage to fragile ecosystems.

"Some of this damage, you know, no doubt is permanent. You can’t rebuild a mountain that’s been dynamited to make way for the wall. But other damage like that of habitat fragmentation we can address," said Laiken Jordahl, borderlands campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson.

Jordahl and others paint the picture of a monumental task for the Biden administration. Construction crews have already dug up miles of desert, using a post 9/11 law which allowed the Trump administration to declare a national emergency, and circumvent 41 different environmental laws, including the endangered species act. Activists say the lack of regulation also means it's difficult fully assess the amount of environmental damage, without extensive scientific study.

"In the case of removing the wall, reconnecting the habitat, that can be done with simple actions even if the entire ecosystem has not yet returned to the previous condition," said Emily Burns, program director with Sky Island Alliance in Tucson. The group has been tracking area wildlife for months, identifying more than 100 species impacted by wall construction. Burns wants some sections of the wall removed immediately, to allow for animal migration.

There are also more pressing needs. With construction crews gone, many areas could actually see more damage.

"I witnessed in the past week the pushing of sediment down into our washes that are going to be huge risk of erosion. We will be seeing massive landslides if we don’t make sure that we deal with some of the work that’s been done," Burns said. She, and others, say the Biden administration needs to act immediately.

The new administration will face other challenges. The Trump administration signed $4 billion in contracts for border construction. It's unclear if those contracts can be cancelled, but lawmakers, like Congressman Raul Grijalva, want those funds repurposed to restore the environment, and try to repair Native American sites which were damaged or destroyed, according to spokesperson Geoff Noland. Grijalva, a Democrat, also wants a permanent moratorium on wall construction, and plans to revive a bill which would require the federal government to engage with tribal leaders before moving forward with any plans for additional border security.

Grijalva favors upgrading and modernizing ports of entry, said Noland. According to Customs and Border protection, between 80 and 90 percent of illegal drugs are smuggled through legal crossing points.

Environmentalists insist a wall is not the answer to securing the border, and they believe technology and manpower can do the job, without disrupting native desert.

"We are absolutely willing to work with the administration, but we have to be clear, border walls do not stop immigration or drug smuggling. They're a medieval solution to a complex 21st-century problem," Jordahl said.

ABC15 reached out to the White House asking for more information about its plan for the wall. We did not receive a response.