The Fence

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On a recent camping trip to San Diego County, I decided to spend a day investigating the border country. At one point, needing to exercise my golden retriever, I pulled over on a small hill next to the huge metal fence separating the United States from Mexico. Throwing a ball, I watched it bounce down the hill and come to a stop at the base of the fence. Just as it did, a raven flew across from the other side. If I were an animal in this country, I thought, I would want to be a bird.

The 15 to 20-foot high border fence is a giant wall slicing through a vast desert ecosystem. Blocking not only human migrations, but those of animals as well, it snakes through some of the most fragile and biologically diverse country in the world -- yet is exempt from most environmental laws.

At an average cost of $1 million to $4 million a mile, about 700 miles have been built along our southern border, with more in the works. Debate rages as to its effectiveness in stopping illegal immigration or drug smuggling, but most biologists agree it is an ecological disaster. Causing erosion and flooding in some areas, and interfering with the movement of wildlife in others, it is particularly dire for rare species such as the endangered jaguar. Before the fence was built, jaguars had begun to expand their range from Mexico back into Arizona, a place they historically inhabited before they were eradicated more than 50 years ago. With the fence now cutting the animal's habitat in two, many biologists believe it has no chance of reestablishing itself in the United States.

Standing on the hill, I watched my dog retrieve her ball and return to drop it at my feet. What would she do, I wondered, if I lobbed the ball over the fence, her urge to retrieve as strong as the urge of any animal when instinct says it's time to move? Scanning the cactus-studded landscape on both sides of the fence, like the animals, I saw not two separate countries but one desert. Perhaps the politicians should see it that way too.

With a Perspective, this is Carol Arnold.


Carol Arnold is an environmental planner and writer living in San Francisco.