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Trump’s border wall caused ‘significant damage and destruction’ to environmental and cultural resources, watchdog says

Barriers constructed along the U.S.-Mexico border during former President Donald Trump’s administration caused “significant damage and destruction” to the environment and cultural sites, according to a report released Thursday by the Government Accountability Office.

The watchdog’s 72-page document says that the former president’s efforts to deliver on a campaign promise to construct more than 450 miles of border barrier panels along the southwest border to deter illegal crossings and activity, hampered the migration of endangered species, eroded federal lands, disrupted water flow, and “irreparably” damaged sacred tribal sites.

As they prepared to construct the wall in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas, Trump administration officials waived laws aimed at protecting cultural and natural resources and installed more than half of the wall’s mileage on federal lands.

Barrier panels extended, for example, through Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, Coronado National Forest, and parts of a national wildlife refuge in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. 

According to the report, 81% of the panels’ mileage replaced existing barriers.

In some instances, narrower pedestrian barriers replaced vehicle barriers with wider openings, which has obstructed the passage of wildlife, including endangered species, the report said.

The wall’s construction has also damaged native vegetation and disrupted natural water flows, which in turn has “threatened and endangered” fish species, and impacted drainage during heavy rains, according to the report.

In addition to its environmental impacts, the watchdog noted that the installation of parts of the wall has also harmed historic sites and sites deemed sacred by some tribes.

One sacred site was “irreparably damaged” in Arizona when contractors used explosives to clear a path to expand an existing patrol road, the report noted, citing Tohono O’odham Nation officials.

Many saguaro cacti in Arizona, which are sacred to the tribe and found only in the Sonoran Desert, were also destroyed as contractors sought to transplant them away from construction areas, the report said. 

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., who requested the report, called the wall a “symbolic message of hate,” and a “political stunt” in a statement Thursday.

“We now know for certain it has caused immeasurable, irreparable harm to our environment & cultural heritage,” Grijalva wrote on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.

A spokesperson for Trump did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

Construction of the barrier has stalled since January 2021, after President Joe Biden took office and signed a proclamation pausing the effort.

At the time, Biden said the wall was a waste of money and “not a serious policy solution.”

Biden’s move to halt the construction when he entered office, “exacerbated” the project’s negative impacts, the report found. The watchdog noted that Customs and Border Protection has made efforts to address safety hazards and remove exposed rebar at abandoned sites, but more needs to be done.

The agency agreed to the watchdog’s recommendation to work with the Department of the Interior to develop a strategy to mitigate impacts on resources stemming from the barriers, according to documented letters from each agency included in the report. Both agencies declined requests for further comment.

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