Imagine dedicating your entire life to protecting a place. Then imagine watching everything you’ve worked to protect be bulldozed by a desperate, self-serving president.
That’s what’s happening right now to career scientists and conservationists at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument on Arizona’s border with Mexico.
I used to work there too. It breaks my heart.
Organ Pipe, a sprawling 500-square-mile wilderness area home to the best preserved Sonoran Desert ecosystem on the planet, is being butchered by President Trump’s border wall.
Four years ago, fresh out of college, I landed my dream job with the National Park Service at Organ Pipe. My work there was to study threats to this and help craft wilderness policies to protect this internationally recognized biosphere reserve for generations to come.
I awoke early each morning to the sounds of curved-billed thrashers pecking at cactus fruit outside my window. I spent weeks in the field exploring the volcanic mountains and sweeping bajadas speckled with alien plant life.
I’d never seen such fiery sunsets. I’d never seen the Milky Way shine so bright.
A week into my term at Organ Pipe I was smitten with the place. A month in, awestruck by such curious critters thriving in one of the world’s harshest environments, I had fallen completely in love with the Sonoran Desert.
I spent Trump’s inauguration day wandering through a cactus forest near the border. It was difficult to imagine a wall slicing across this landscape I had grown to love.
The wall was just a xenophobic campaign promise. I couldn’t imagine it as a reality.
Now, four years later, there’s no need to imagine. Trump’s signature symbol has taken a physical form. A massive metal scar is slicing through the desert I and so many others worked so hard to protect.
Each week I drive 150 miles from my home in Tucson to Organ Pipe to film pristine desert being bulldozed. I watch saguaro and organ pipe cactus be plowed over by Caterpillar earth-movers, sawed into chunks like firewood and tossed into trash heaps. I bear witness as contractors suck up millions of gallons of precious groundwater and turn it into concrete for the footings of 30-foot steel bollard walls.
I bring journalists to see the damage. I share these heart-wrenching images on my Twitter page.
I feel like a disaster tour guide, like an ambassador to the pain inflicted on these stunning, sacred lands. As someone who worked for years to protect this place, I feel like it’s my duty to share these images with the world. I want everyone to know the true cost of Trump’s wall.
The wall is destroying the fragile ecosystem park service scientists have dedicated their lives to protect. It will stop migrating wildlife in their tracks, preventing animals like desert bighorn sheep, Sonoran pronghorn and even cactus ferruginous pygmy owls — which rarely fly higher than 12 feet — from finding water, food and mates.
It will cause flooding and soil erosion, sully Organ Pipe’s spectacular dark night skies with blinding floodlights and destroy a huge swath of habitat to create a 60-foot dead-zone that Border Patrol will pave with a patrol road and stake with sensors.
As climate change intensifies and animals migrate north in search of cooler habitats, they’ll find a hulking metal barrier in their path. Trapped on the hotter, drier side of the wall, wildlife will die.
Nowhere is this more apparent than at Quitobaquito Springs, a sweet, reed-ringed desert oasis just a stone’s throw from the planned course of Trump’s wall. This week, construction crews bladed and bulldozed a huge swath of desert just south of the springs. The wall will go up there any day.
Quitobaquito is the only reliable source of surface water for 50 miles in any direction. Thirsty wildlife south of the wall will soon find themselves close enough to smell the sweet relief of water, but unable to get there. Animals will die of thirst in plain sight of salvation through the rusted steel slats of Trump’s wall.
The wall will kill people, too.
In the last 20 years at least 8,000 migrants have perished crossing the border, and the highest concentration of deaths have occurred in or near Organ Pipe.
Just last week I watched Border Patrol detain a group of migrants, mostly women and children, who had crossed between sections of the newly built wall. They were waiting on the side of the road to turn themselves in and request asylum.
Trump’s horrific “metering” policies are closing off official ports of entry, forcing families like these to cross in more remote, dangerous areas or wait for months on the streets.
But it’s important to remember that for Trump, cruelty is the point. From parents being separated from their children to the horrors of the “remain in Mexico” policy, this administration is doing everything in its power to inflict the maximum amount of pain on the world’s most vulnerable people. As more miles of wall rise up and as and climate change turns our borderlands hotter and drier, thousands more will die.
And if even more endangered species are wiped off the map and wilderness lands are destroyed along the way, so be it. This administration will sacrifice anything to further militarize the border and turn our public lands into killing fields.
Those of us on the ground must continue documenting this tragedy, organizing resistance and fighting this horrific wall.
And when Trump is gone, we’ll tear it all down.
Laiken Jordahl is a borderlands campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, working along the US-Mexico border to protect wildlife, ecosystems, and communities, and to raise awareness of the impact the border wall is having on the local ecology. Follow Laiken on Twitter: LaikenJordahl
This article first appeared on Medium’s On Spec.