At Big Bend, Mother Nature has already built a border wall

As far as Louis Harveson is concerned, Mother Nature built a “big, beautiful wall” along the Rio Grande so the Trump administration wouldn’t have to.

That natural wall is Santa Elena Canyon, a gorgeous set of cliffs framing the Rio Grande on both sides of the international border. At their tallest point, they rise up to 1,500 feet above the shallow water, according to the National Park Service. Many photographs of river rafters paddling their way through Big Bend are taken at this spot.

“Probably the most impressive border wall I have ever seen,” said Harveson, director of the Borderland Research Institute based at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, about two hours north of Big Bend National Park.

Many Texans don’t believe the Trump administration will be able to build a wall the length of the border — at least not in Texas, where the entire international boundary is a river. But Harveson still worries plenty about it.

Harveson closely tracks wildlife and plant life not only in Big Bend but throughout the Southwest, and said it can’t be overstated how much damage a 20- to 30-foot man-made wall could do to one of Texas’ greatest natural treasures.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott hasn’t said much about the proposed border wall, although he has praised Trump’s efforts to deport undocumented immigrants. But Abbott did say he doesn’t want to see a wall in Big Bend National Park.

“There are serpentine regions of the Rio Grande where it would be extremely challenging to build a wall. There are parts like the Big Bend region — we don’t want to see a wall in the beautiful Big Bend National Park,” Abbott said, according to The Associated Press.

Even so, Trump has made no such commitment to leave natural areas of Texas untouched.

As long as a border wall is still a possibility, Harveson worries about the impact to plants and animals that can survive for centuries in punishing heat and drought, but are no match for human intervention.

Bears and other animals

Perhaps the best example is the Mexican black bear.

Many Texans likely grew up thinking that bears don’t exist in Texas, but that wasn’t always true — and it’s no longer true today.

These animals were so bountiful in the early 1900s they were hunted for meat and fur, and to keep them away from West Texas cattle.

The hunts drove the black bears into Mexico and by the 1950s the animals were considered “locally extinct,” Harveson said.

But bears reappeared in Big Bend beginning in the 1990s, apparently to escape drought in Mexico. Unlike many programs in which humans reintroduce animals onto lands they once occupied, the arrival of the bears in Big Bend was “natural recolonization,” Harveson said.

Big Bend National Park, created in 1944 by a handful of wealthy Texans, including Star-Telegram founder Amon G. Carter Sr., who wished to preserve Texas’ best natural asset, once again became as attractive to the bear population as it was before settlers arrived.

“There’s just a lot of unique creatures who make this desert their home, and the wall would certainly have an impact on those animals,” he said. “We have a lot of … wildlife unique to Texas. We have mountain lions, black bears, bighorn sheep, desert mule deer.”

The soil

A 20- or 30-foot wall would also dramatically change the way the region drains during rainstorms.

The area’s rainy season runs from May to September, and flash flooding can occur, particularly in July and August.

Roads that carry visitors through the national park often must be replaced because the soil beneath them can be washed away by a single storm, Harveson said.

“This is an area with highly erodible soils,” Harveson said, pointing to a line of mountain ridges as he drove through the national park’s northwestern end. “It is prone to flash floods and you can see the terrain. It goes up and down, and it takes a billy goat to get up and down some of these areas.

“You can imagine, trying to put up a fence or a wall in this kind of canyon, and just imagine a 2-inch rain coming off this wall and this ridge line.”

What visitors say

Asking Big Bend visitors what they think about a proposed border wall is a little like asking the home-team crowd which side it supports. These are folks who choose to spend their free time in remote areas of seemingly untouched natural beauty.

But for what it’s worth, here is what they have to say:

Glenn Milligan, a retiree from Bar Harbor, Maine, said Mexican citizens who come to the U.S. to work are under-appreciated and vital to the economy.

“The wall makes no sense. It does no good,” he said. “These people have never been hostile to you. Try to get your roof done in a few years. You won’t be able to afford it.”

Louis Moncivias lives in Austin but spent a lot of time in the Big Bend region and fought against the Trans-Pecos Pipeline, which is being built to carry natural gas from West Texas to Mexico.

“We don’t need this type of separation. We don’t need this border control,” Moncivias said after taking a dip in the Rio Grande at Santa Elena Canyon. “It’s financially unreasonable … to humans in general.”

And, he added, “Our animals will not be able to wander freely as Mother Earth intended.”

Rich Meunier voted for President Trump. But the retired wholesale building materials businessman from southern Indiana opposes the wall.

“I don’t think it ever will be built, and I don’t think it should,” said Meunier, who in late April camped overnight at Big Bend National Park with his wife, Donna.

“It sounds good to say you want to build a wall, but we’ve got a wall now on the border in some of the bigger cities and people dig a tunnel underneath it,” Meunier said. “He [Trump] sometimes says things to stir people up, but the wall would not be a good use of money.”

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796, @gdickson