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September 7th, 2023
Government Watchdog: Trump’s Border Wall Damaged Environment, Hurt Wildlife & Destroyed Indigenous Sacred Sites

Washington, D.C. – Today, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), a nonpartisan government watchdog agency, issued a new report detailing the damage wrought by former President Trump’s border wall on the country’s natural and cultural resources. The report was requested by House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) in May 2021.

CLICK HERE to read GAO’s full report.

According to the report, Trump’s border wall and border wall construction have:

  • destroyed Indigenous sacred sites and burial grounds, like Monument Hill;
  • zapped preciously scarce Western water resources in some areas and caused damming and flooding in others;
  • permanently altered wildlife migration patterns and put endangered species, like the ocelot, at even greater risk of extinction;
  • decimated native plants, including untold numbers of the iconic saguaro cacti, while also recklessly spreading invasive species; and
  • caused dangerously severe erosion.

On release of the report, Ranking Member Grijalva said, “From the start, President Trump’s border wall was nothing more than a symbolic message of hate, aimed at vilifying migrants and bolstering extreme MAGA rhetoric. This racist political stunt has been an ineffective waste of billions of American taxpayers’ dollars—and now we know it has caused immeasurable, irreparable harm to our environment and cultural heritage as well.

“So much damage has been done, but we still have the opportunity to keep it from getting worse. Environmental restoration and mitigation work must be led by science and input from the right stakeholders, including tribes and communities along the border. So many corners were cut in building the wall—let’s not repeat history by cutting corners in repairing the damage it caused.

“The report also makes clear that federal land management agencies, like the Interior Department and U.S. Forest Service, must be involved in environmental restoration and mitigation. These agencies have the utmost expertise and scientific knowledge of the borderlands. That’s why I’m urging my fellow lawmakers to include funds for Interior and the Forest Service in the FY24 budget to make sure they have a strong leadership role going forward.”

Additional Report Highlights

From 2017-2021, the Trump administration—U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Department of Defense (DOD)—installed approximately 458 miles of border wall panels, the majority (62%) of which were on federal public lands. In doing so, CBP and DOD waived dozens of environmental, public health, and cultural preservation laws, using authorities under the REAL ID Act of 2005 and President Trump’s national emergency declaration.

By waiving environmental and cultural preservation laws, like the Clean Water Act, Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), CBP and DOD only had to rely on their own voluntary environmental assessments before beginning construction. Both agencies reported to GAO that these assessments were not as rigorous or comprehensive as they would have been under NEPA. Other federal agencies, tribes, and stakeholders reported that these assessments lacked sufficient public input and transparency, critical scientific analyses, and flexibility in decision-making.

The lack of sufficient environmental assessments had significant impacts on natural and cultural resources. GAO found that these impacts fell into five main categories: 1) cultural resources, 2) water sources and flooding, 3) wildlife migration and habitats, 4) vegetation and invasive species, and 5) erosion.

In January 2021, President Biden paused all border wall construction. Since then, CBP and DOD have coordinated with the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) to initiate environmental restoration and mitigation efforts. However, GAO found that these efforts could be significantly improved by developing a joint strategy that outlines each agency’s roles and responsibilities.

GAO issued three recommendations in their report:

  1. CBP should jointly document, with DOI, a strategy for mitigating impacts to natural and cultural resources.
  2. DOI should jointly document, with CBP, a strategy for mitigating impacts to natural and cultural resources.
  3. CBP should evaluate lessons learned from its assessment process.
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