PHOENIX – The construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border under former President Donald Trump toppled untold numbers of saguaro cactuses in Arizona, put endangered ocelots at risk in Texas and disturbed Native American burial grounds, the official congressional watchdog said Thursday.
A report released by the Government Accountability Office offers the first independent assessment of damage caused by the building of more than 450 miles ( 724 km) of wall while in-depth environmental reviews were waived and the concerns of Native American tribes went largely ignored in the rush to finish the barrier.
Now, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Interior Department should work together to ease the damage, the GAO said. It recommended that the agencies coordinate to decide how much repair work will cost, how to fund it, and how long it will take.
A Customs and Border Protection spokesman said Wednesday that the agency is working on a response to the report. An Interior Department spokeswoman said the agency would have no comment.
“What makes Trump’s border wall so egregious is that his administration waived dozens of environmental, public health, cultural preservation and even contract procurement laws to build it,” said U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, a southern Arizona Democrat who requested the GAO review. “Before construction even started, communities, tribes and other stakeholders were raising the alarm about the colossal damage that bypassing such fundamental protections would have."
Grijalva said he is urging fellow lawmakers to transfer at least $225 million from Homeland Security to the Interior Department and Forest Service in the upcoming budget for restoration efforts.
Trump and his supporters have argued that a strong physical barrier along the border is necessary to keep out drugs and people trying to enter the U.S. illegally.
“We applied a commonsense, balanced approach in an effort to address environmental concerns while prioritizing our main goal of securing the nation’s border to reduce a vast set of complex threats from entering the U.S.," said Mark Morgan, who was Customs and Border Protection's acting commissioner during the Trump administration.
“Speaking personally, if we disrupt a butterfly habitat or a few cacti die in exchange for disrupting the cartel’s operational capacity to threaten our nation’s safety and national security, I’m OK with that tradeoff,” said Morgan, now a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. “The wall saved lives and disrupted the cartel’s ability to improve their operational control of our country’s borders.”
Environmental groups said the GAO report confirmed their earlier complaints. They said future repair work could benefit from more involvement by the Interior Department, a lead manager of the federal land where much of the damage occurred.
“We hope this report will help people understand the degree of destruction the wall truly inflicted,” said Laiken Jordahl, Southwest conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, among the groups consulted.
A key aspect of the report was "identifying the fact that the Department of the Interior needs to play a larger role in repairing the damage,” said Michael Dax, Western program director for the Wildlands Network, which also gave the GAO input.
Emily Burns, program director for the ecological group Sky Island Alliance, called it “refreshing to see the accountability from the federal government."
The border stretches across nearby 2,000 miles (3,200 km) along California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Sections of what Trump called his “big, beautiful wall” were installed between January 2017 and January 2021 by contractors for U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Defense.
President Joe Biden paused construction after he took office in January 2021.
For the report, the GAO consulted with the federal agencies, as well as the nongovernmental environmental groups. It also sought input from the Tohono O’odham tribe, which has a sprawling reservation that includes parts of Arizona and Sonora, Mexico; and the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians in California.
Those consulted told the GAO that construction in parts of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas fragmented the endangered ocelot’s habitat by blocking its cross-border access and putting it at risk of extinction.
The GAO was told lighting along the border harms bird migration and the foraging habits of some species. Larger animals like big cats and pronghorns that previously crossed the border through vehicle barriers with wider openings are now blocked by tall steel bollards erected inches apart.
Many saguaro cactuses in Arizona's Sonora Desert were toppled during construction, and in some areas at least half of those transplanted elsewhere later died.
Damage was also reported at Quitobaquito Springs, an oasis several hundred yards (meters) from the border inside the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The area includes sacred burial grounds of the Tohono O'odham people.
The GAO said that Customs and Border Protection later addressed construction-caused safety hazards, such as building concrete floodwalls to fix earthen levees in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.
But the watchdog said more action is needed.