Why Trump can dynamite a sacred, protected hill to build the border wall

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The border wall in Nogales, Arizona, in 2019
The border wall in Nogales, Arizona, in 2019
Image: ARIANA DREHSLER / AFP via Getty Images

To make way for the expanding border wall, contractors hired by the Trump administration are presently blasting away protected land in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument — a park established more than 80 years ago by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

But that’s not all. The demolition in southern Arizona has come to Monument Hill, home to sacred Native American land and ancient burial sites. The hill encompasses both sides of the border.

“It is as absurd as it sounds,” said Laiken Jordahl, who has been documenting the destruction (and construction) along the borderlands for the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation organization. 

“The administration is literally blowing up a mountain in a national monument to build a wall,” Jordahl said, adding that the park is 95 percent designated wilderness and is also an established International Biosphere Reserve. “It’s a national tragedy.”

And it’s all legal. The administration is relying upon a small section of a federal law passed in 2005, called the REAL ID Act, to simply “waive” dozens of environmental laws, explained Holly Doremus, a professor of environmental regulation at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. 

The law, which gives the federal government more leeway to construct barriers at the border, allows the Secretary of Homeland Security the unfettered ability to waive environmental laws — including the likes of the Native American Graves Protection Act and Repatriation Act and the Endangered Species Act — when they see fit. In February 2019, then-Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen ordered that more than two dozen environmental laws be waived to bolster the border. 

It probably sounds ridiculous that a single, powerful, politically-appointed official can overturn (along the border) a slew of the nation’s most significant and revered environmental laws. But, 15 years ago, Congress passed the law and sealed the deal. This provision, formerly called Section 102, has been held up in court numerous times, said Doremus.

“Of course, the administration doesn’t have to run roughshod over environmental and other protections, but they may well have the legal right to do so,” she said. 

“It’s a national tragedy.”

So the blasting, to establish a patrol road beside the wall, continues. 

“It’s a new degree of devastation,” said Jordahl, who previously helped the National Park Service write Organ Pipe’s wilderness stewardship plan. “The wall has been disastrous. We’ve seen hundreds of cacti chopped up.”

“But to actually dynamite a mountain — that’s more disgraceful,” he said. 

The hill is sacred to the Tohono O’odham Nation, Native American people who have inhabited this Sonoran Desert region for thousands of years. The O’odham have a significant history at Monument Hill.

“Where they were blasting the other day on Monument Hill is the resting place for primarily Apache warriors that had been involved in a battle with the O’odham,” Congressman Raúl Grijalva said in a video Sunday, after returning from the Arizona border. The O’odham respectfully buried the Apache dead on Monument Hill, he said.

The tribe has documented centuries-old histories of the hill, found bones, and asked the government to stop working on the hill, Peter Steere, the tribe’s historic preservation officer, told the Arizona Republic

“We’re seeing a huge amount of archaeology destroyed,” said the Center for Biological Diversity’s Jordahl. “It looks like a superhighway across the mountain.”

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