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Day 7: Nature’s big, beautiful border wall

March 29, 2017
Tourists pose for a family portrait in Santa Elena Canyon, just feet from a cliff face that is Mexico, on the banks of the Rio Grande river in Big Bend National Park in Texas, Monday, March 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
Tourists pose for a family portrait in Santa Elena Canyon, just feet from a cliff face that is Mexico, on the banks of the Rio Grande river in Big Bend National Park in Texas, Monday, March 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

At parts of the U.S.-Mexico border, crossing means simply taking a single step. Elsewhere it might involve soaking your shoes or going for a swim.

Then there are places like Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park, West Texas, where the geology creates natural barriers that are formidable and striking to behold. Here the Rio Grande slides between two sheer cliff faces, one in Mexico and one in the United States, that tower 1,500 feet above the water.

Margaret McCall is a 26-year-old clean-energy consultant from Chicago. Today she’s hiking along the canyon floor and perches upon a rock in the middle of the river. Looking around at the scenery, she calls the idea of putting a wall here “completely ludicrous.”

“My first thought is, has Donald Trump seen this cliff?” McCall says. “Because unless you’re building a 500-foot wall, it’s really not going to cut it.”

Cooling off in the canyon’s shade, Joan Staniswalis and David Finston, retired math professors from Las Cruces, New Mexico, agree. Says Staniswalis: “It’s insane.”

Staniswalis’ legs are dripping, and she says they forded the shallow river to touch the other side of the canyon. Technically, they just visited Mexico.

“As far as we understand, we just crossed an international border,” Finston adds.

If President Donald Trump can find the estimated $12 billion to $21 billion needed to wall the entirety of the nearly 2,000-mile border, his engineers will have their work cut out for them. That’s the case not only in Santa Elena Canyon but in many other places where the terrain is challenging.

Binational treaties forbid building a barrier in the river or its flood plain. A wall in the Arizona desert would find it hard to withstand raging flash floods, especially if it’s impermeable. Scientists say it could also disrupt ecosystems and migration patterns for animals from bears and jaguars to ocelots and low-flying pygmy owls, including some endangered species.

At least some officials in the Trump administration are aware of the problems. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said this week that building a wall would be complex in some places, suggesting electronic monitors could be used in some areas and others with imposing natural features might not need reinforcement.

Besides potential environmental lawsuits, wall construction also faces likely legal challenges from property owners in places where the government doesn’t already own the land adjacent to the border. Many similar suits took years to wend their way through the courts for fencing in South Texas, for example.

Gabriel Guerrero, 30, grew up in West Texas and works at a shop patching and replacing tires for tourists in Terlingua, just outside Big Bend National Park.

Lately more and more customers have been asking where they can go to see the border wall. He directs them to nearby Santa Elena Canyon without further explanation.

“You get the tourists, and they get the weirdest opinions,” Guerrero says. “They live inland away from the border and none of that affects them. It affects people like me that live right here. If you live within 100 miles of that border, it will affect you in some way. But if that wall goes up, I swear it’s going to be a prison to most of us.”

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