Department of the Interior transfers land along border to Army

Last month, the Department of the Interior announced the transfer of 560 acres of federal land along the United States-Mexico border to the Department of the Army, for the purpose of building about 70 miles of border barriers. The land will be transferred to Army jurisdiction temporarily for a period of three years.

The possible effects of border barriers on wildlife and biodiversity have been worrying many natural resource professionals in recent years. Last year, the Western and Southwest Sections of The Wildlife Society collaborated on a letter to members of Congress regarding the potential effects of border barriers on wildlife along the U.S.-Mexico border. The letter cautioned that “impermeable barriers placed in sensitive habitats can limit and disrupt the established demographic and genetic interchange among wildlife populations, disrupt normal seasonal movements of wildlife populations, and reduce the ability of species to shift ranges in response to local weather conditions and, ultimately, to climate change.”

David Bernhardt, Secretary of the Interior, invoked the emergency withdrawals provision under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act to transfer the land — only the eighth time that the emergency authority has been used since the act was passed in 1976. Such authority allows the Secretary to declare an emergency to “preserve values that would otherwise be lost.” Within 90 days, Interior must issue a report to Congress justifying the emergency withdrawal, along with an inventory of natural resource uses and values of the areas withdrawn and evidence of consultations with other federal agencies, state and local governments, and other groups.

Interior justified the transfer by noting in its press release that, “In addition to national security concerns, this [transfer] also responds to environmental issues caused by unlawful border crossings. Wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, as well as species and vegetation are adversely impacted by land degradation and destruction caused by the creation of trails, the deposition of trash, and unlawful fires, among other things. Construction of border barriers will reduce or eliminate these impacts and preserve values that will otherwise be lost.”

The transferred land includes five separate parcels, all within the Roosevelt Reservation, a 60-foot-wide area along the length of the southern border established in 1907:

  • 170 acres in Luna and Hidalgo counties, N.M. to replace the existing vehicle barrier with a pedestrian barrier
  • 43 acres in Hidalgo County, N.M. for the construction of new pedestrian barriers
  • 44 acres in San Diego County, Calif., for the construction of new primary bollard fence and secondary pedestrian barrier
  • 228 acres in Yuma County, Ariz., to replace the existing vehicle barrier adjacent to the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge with a pedestrian barrier

74 acres in Yuma County, Ariz., for the construction of new pedestrian barriers

Header Image: Border walls can impede the natural movement of wildlife and reduce species’ resilience in the face of climate change. ©Janice Engle/USFWS