A fellow birder and photographer I met a few winters ago in pursuit of a Fork-tailed Flycatcher—a bird of Central and South America who somehow found his way to the wilds of Connecticut—recently posted a photo of a Great-crested Flycatcher perched on a feeder pole in her back yard. Unlike the Fork-tailed, this flycatcher is a regular fixture in the Northeast, but finding one in your yard is still an event of some note, and she was thrilled to have captured it—particularly given how notoriously skittish these birds are. And it’s a wonderful photograph—the image is crisp, the color beautiful, and the light just about ideal. In her mind, the only drawback is the metal pole; she prefers photos that are free of, as she put it, evidence of the hand of man.
She’s not alone in this. Given the choice, most photographers I know would rather capture wildlife in a natural setting. And I get it. After all, showing animals in their unaltered environments is the First Commandment of wildlife photography. I share this bias towards unspoiled nature, and though I won’t pass up the chance to photograph a bird just because there’s an object from the human world in the frame, I often feel that such images are somehow tainted.
Lately, I’ve been questioning this. For one thing, there’s quite a bit of artistry to many of these photos, and they open windows into the lives of creatures who share spaces we think of as ours: songbirds singing from fence posts; raptors using telephone poles as vantages and nest sites; gulls perched on buoys; sandpipers foraging in parking lot puddles; birds resting on wooden piers, feeding from stone jetties, and nesting on, in, and around all manner of structures… the list of human objects birds use as they go about the business of being birds is limited only by what’s available to them. Sometimes, too, the line between the human and wild worlds blurs to indistinction: Purple Martins nest almost exclusively in houses we’ve built for them, and in the most extreme example, the world’s largest populations of Peregrine Falcons now live in our cities. Having traded rocky outcroppings for cliffs of concrete and steel, the urban jungle is the Falcon’s natural environment.
There’s something beyond aesthetic considerations though, an unintended consequence of this tendency to discount images that show evidence of our presence. It’s so subtle that it hadn’t even occurred to me until very recently. The issue is this: Presenting photos of animals only in a wild context unconsciously reinforces the misperception that we are somehow removed from them, that the worlds of people and nature are separated by a vast, unbridgeable divide, that we are not a part of nature, but apart from it. A photo of a Mourning Dove on a shingled roof or a Black-capped Chickadee nesting in an abandoned telephone junction box reminds us that wild creatures are not confined to the wilderness; they’re all around us, and we are bound to them by threads that stretch back farther than the dawn of humanity.
Don’t get me wrong—we need both kinds of images, desperately. A photo of a toucan in the middle of the rainforest or a Snowy Owl hunting the Arctic tundra opens our eyes to the wonders of the world and reveals the wilderness still left to protect. And a picture of a hummingbird visiting a backyard feeder or a Red-breasted Nuthatch feasting on a suet cake sheds light on the wildlife just outside our doors, to which we are intimately connected. Regardless of your own preference—and there’s no right or wrong in this—neither type is inherently better. Both have equal value, and both remind us that there’s life here beyond humanity.
That we share this planet with countless species is a point worth remembering, particularly when making decisions that impact our world at large. For better or worse, we have the ability to alter our environment more so than any other species in history—even to the point of driving others into extinction. As such, we bear a heavy responsibility to make such decisions soberly, with full possession of the facts, and with an awareness of and appreciation for the potential consequences to all.
With the fear-mongering and fact-averse Trump administration in the White House and the GOP-led Congress rolling back even the most basic of environmental protections and hell-bent on wholesale ecological annihilation, this is more urgent than ever. There is no greater illustration of this confluence of forces and the danger they represent than the recent developments within South Texas’ Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.
Widely considered to be the crown jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge system, Santa Ana NWR encompasses more than 2,000 acres of critical wildlife habitat along the banks of the Rio Grande. Hosting more than 400 species of birds—including Lower Rio Grande Valley specialties like Green Jay, Plain Chachalaca, Green Kingfisher, and Great Kiskadee, as well as several rarities that stray north from Mexico—Santa Ana is one of the top birding destinations in the world. It’s also home to half of all the United States’ butterfly species and more than 450 species of plants, and is the last refuge within this country for the endangered Ocelot (fewer than 50 of these beautiful cats are left in the U.S.). Santa Ana is a biological hotspot like no other, and with 95 percent of the Rio Grande Valley’s native habitat already lost to agriculture and development, it is one of the most ecologically important areas in the country.
And we’re at risk of losing it. Santa Ana is under attack.
The key to the refuge’s richness and the source of its peril are one and the same: location, location, location. Santa Ana sits at a convergence between four distinct climates—subtropical, temperate, coastal, and desert—that tragically occur at North America’s most contentious address: the U.S./Mexico border. Trump’s “big, beautiful wall” has found Ground Zero.
In an administration rife with controversies, this may be the worst. Expanding the border wall was the foundational promise of Trump’s campaign: he would secure the entire 2,000-mile border with an impassable barrier—and he’d get Mexico to pay for it.
The ludicrousness of that assertion aside, here’s the catch: Texas holds the lion’s share of the border between the two nations, and the vast majority of it is on private land, which the federal government can’t just build on. Its options are limited: purchase the land from each individual owner or seize it through eminent domain or some other means. Both are expensive and complicated, and create issues the administration would rather not spend time resolving (around 100 condemnation suits filed against private landowners by the George W. Bush administration for the first round of construction in 2007 have yet to be resolved).
There is a way to avoid all this hassle, though, and just get to work: build on land the government already owns. Thus, Santa Ana. As a National Wildlife Refuge, it technically belongs to the federal government, and it can do with the refuge as it pleases. And thanks to the REAL ID Act of 2005, it can do so without regard to environmental restrictions or impact. The Trump administration is wasting no time: government contractors have already begun preliminary work, surveying land and taking soil samples for a proposed three-mile section of wall that would cut Santa Ana in half.
Black-bellied Whistling Duck
The current plan calls for construction of an 18-foot high physical barrier set into a solid concrete base, as well as clearing broad swaths of land on both sides of the wall, building a road south of the wall, and erecting light towers and other surveillance equipment. To call this a disaster is to severely understate the case. Driving a wall through Santa Ana’s heart would be an ecological catastrophe from which the refuge and the vast array of species who depend on its bounty would never recover. Of course, many birds could simply fly over the border wall, but they’d still be affected by the loss of critical habitat and the disruption to their lives that would result from construction, monitoring, and maintenance. For those birds who prefer to keep close to the ground, 18 feet of wall presents more of a challenge. And terrestrial animals whose survival depends on free movement across the border would be doomed. Faced with an impenetrable barrier and cut off from critical sources of food and water, many would die. In addition, the refuge is already prone to storm flooding from the Rio Grande: 2010’s Hurricane Alex flooded Santa Ana for four months (if that doesn’t seem excessive, try treading water for that long). Add a border wall to the mix, and the impact would be even more devastating. For the endangered Ocelots, this could be the final push that sends them plummeting towards extinction.
There’s a human cost as well. South Texas is one of the poorest parts of the country, and nature tourism has an enormous impact—$463 million annually, to be exact, most generated from birding. Santa Ana alone hosts 165,000 visitors a year, from all over the world. They’ll continue to come, too, as long as there’s a refuge left to visit. But if Trump has his way, you can kiss it all goodbye. And all for a border wall that the people ostensibly most in need of it don’t want, and many experts agree won’t work (the Cato Institute, not known for its liberal leanings, published an analysis of border wall effectiveness; you can find it here).
Fortunately, the voices of protest are ringing clear throughout the valley. Landowners, residents, naturalists, religious leaders, and Texas politicians on both sides of the ideological divide have joined forces to decry Trump’s assault on their homes, their lands, and the irreplaceable wild lands and refuges to which the Rio Grande valley plays host. There is strength in numbers and in unified opposition, and both are building.
And there is also hope in the form of more effective and less destructive solutions. A small coalition of border-state lawmakers has emerged to offer an alternative to Trump’s medieval approach. Led by U.S. Representative Will Hurd—a Texas Republican—they’ve introduced a bill for a “smart” wall. Instead of a physical barrier, they propose monitoring and protecting the U.S./Mexico border through a network of high-tech security systems. It may sound farfetched, but Rep. Hurd knows whereof he speaks. Not only does his district encompass more of the border than any other congressional district (around 800 miles), he’s a former CIA operative and cybersecurity advisor—making him something of an authority on the subject. At worst, the “smart” wall wouldn’t be any less effective than a slab of concrete that anyone with determination could climb over or tunnel beneath—and it would be far less expensive. According to his research, this cyber wall would drop the cost from an estimated $24.5 million per mile (under Trump’s plan) to a fraction of that: $500,000 per mile. And since you and I will be footing the bill either way, their proposal deserves serious consideration.
There’s a more important reason to resist Trump’s wall, though: it’s the right thing to do. Preserving our wild lands and protecting the incredible bounty of life within them is a moral imperative. It goes beyond the artificial constructs of ideology, nationality, and faith that divide us, and cuts to the core of what it means to be human. Every so often we are given an opportunity to stand up for the greater good, to give our voices to those who have none, to act in defense of something larger than ourselves, to raise the vision of humanity and create a better world in the process. This is such a time.
Our history is not pretty; too often the hand of man has levied death and destruction. But our history need not define our future. In the past, we have turned our hand to preservation and conservancy; now we must do so again. The blind push to expand the border wall is a clarion call to those of us who would stand with wildlife and not against it, and who recognize the intrinsic value of all creatures, great and small. The fight for Santa Ana is more than a fight to save a single refuge. It’s a fight to uphold the sanctity of life in whatever form it takes, and to protect it from threats borne of greed, ignorance, or fear. It’s a fight for the soul of our humanity.
And it’s a fight we will, we must, win.
To learn more about Santa Ana NWR, visit its National Wildlife Refuge page here.
You can get more information about Santa Ana and the border wall controversy through the following links:
And the Denton Record-Chronicle has an article about Rep. Hurd’s “smart” border wall here.