By Ben Jealous
The odds are high that you will never see a Sonoran Pronghorn. About the size of a goat, the pronghorns are so elusive that their nickname is “the desert ghost.”
Adding to the challenge, they’re only found in the United States in a small part of the Southwest, they’ve been endangered since before we had an Endangered Species Act, and they’re the fastest land animal in North America clocking speeds up to 60 miles per hour.
So it would be easy for the short-sighted to overlook the pronghorns – out of sight, out of mind after all. That’s exactly what the Trump administration did when it illegally transferred federal funds and rushed to erect a border wall that threatened many already fragile species, disturbed culturally significant sites, and ruined lands designated as national refuges and monuments.
The Southern Border Communities Coalition, an umbrella organization for more than 60 groups from San Diego to Brownsville, TX; the ACLU; and the Sierra Club have been fighting to stop the destruction since 2019.
Last week they won. It’s an example of people closest to the harm battling and succeeding in a way that has benefit that stretches well beyond their communities.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agreed to stop any further construction on parts of the wall built with Defense Department funds (President Biden paused work on his first day by executive order) and to spend more than $1 billion mitigating damage done to wildlife including jaguars who have only returned to the region in the last decade and more than 400 bird species, sacred lands of the Tohono O’odham Nation, and irreplaceable wild places like Quitobaquito Springs in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
For the pronghorns, it means they will get an opening in the wall at least 18 feet wide in the Cabeza Priete National Wildlife Refuge to be able to cross into Mexico as they historically have. There will be smaller openings for jaguars, black bears, and even smaller wildlife at other places.
Our ecosystem is a web spun with biodiversity that ensures a planet that’s livable and sustainable. Protecting species of animals and plants we inevitably protect ourselves. We can’t anticipate fully the effects that losing species will have.
Cabeza Priete itself is one of the largest wilderness areas outside Alaska. Once destroyed, land that supports so many unique species and houses more than 600 cultural sites dating back to Pre-Colombian times cannot be recovered completely. The settlement calls for roads and wells created to facilitate construction to be erased as a start.
Earlier this year, I went to Arizona to learn more about the fight to stop this environmental and archeological nightmare from frontline organizers like Eric Meza. “From damage to Tribal lands to degraded habitats for wildlife, borderlands communities will be dealing with the consequences of this boondoggle for years to come,” Meza observes.
Perhaps most importantly, the federal government agreed to be bound by the same laws protecting the environment, which demand consultation with communities before major projects begin. While the settlement doesn’t rule out building a wall, it ensures Americans on the border will have a greater say than they did four years ago.
So many of the troubling parts of our history have come because someone powerful decided people and places are disposable in the way that the pronghorns and Cabeza Priete were treated by the Trump administration. It’s a lesson for us not to avoid tough questions about who is bearing the real costs of our decisions. Even if we shouldn’t have to fight to ensure no one, no species and no place is disposable, we must.
Ben Jealous is executive director of the Sierra Club, the nation’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization. He is a professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Never Forget Our People Were Always Free,” published in January.