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Video Shows Saguaro Bulldozed To Build The Border Wall

STEVE GOLDSTEIN:  President Trump’s push to construct a new wall along the U.S.-Mexico border created tension and controversy long before he was elected. And that's continued nearly three years into his administration. And as the process has begun in areas of southern Arizona, environmental groups have been keeping a close watch. And though it was informal, that included what Kevin Dahl saw and shot in a video: the relocation of healthy saguaro cacti. Dahl is the Arizona senior program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. I spoke with him earlier about what he saw and why it bothered him so much. I started by asking what bulldozers were doing when he spotted them.

KEVIN DAHL: Yeah, I was pretty shocked. We were driving back from visiting Quitobaquito Springs and Pond, an area along the border at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument that I desperately want to see protected from any impacts from the wall. And as we drove along, we noticed between the road and the border wall construction activity was happening, or perhaps you could best term it destruction activity. And I was just shocked to see a bulldozer being used to topple saguaros and push them into a slash pile with other native trees. They were scraping in preparation of building the new wall at this site.

GOLDSTEIN: So the saguaro is protected in Arizona. And what's the proper protocol around this? I mean, this seems like something that because of environmental concerns about the border wall beyond other concerns, it seems like there should have been some sort of protocol involved in this. Any idea whether that was taken into account?

DAHL: Yeah, I've learned more since taking the video. State law does protect saguaros. You or me, if we have saguaros on our property and we're gonna build something, we have to do certain things. That doesn't apply to federal lands, and Organ Pipe Cactus is federal land. But they're protected by other laws there. This is a national park unit, and you can't destroy anything. You can't even collect rocks there. And it's also designated by Congress as a wilderness area — the highest form of protection our country bestows on our public lands. Those laws have been waived for the construction of this wall. Forty-one laws in total — the Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act Clean, Water Act, laws that protect archaeological resources and Indian burial sites. All those laws were waived by the secretary of Homeland Security so that this wall can be built expeditiously outside the rule of law. But I have learned that the Border Patrol has instructed the contractors to do certain procedures, and there is a promotional video the Army Corps of Engineers released that shows that they are relocating some saguaros, and they have allowed the Park Service to go ahead of them and relocate other small cactus and other important plants. So I'm less angry than I was then, but I'm still angry. These are not sick and dying saguaros. These are saguaros that have been determined by an arborist that they won't transplant very successfully. And because this is being done outside the rule of law, the public expert scientists have no way of knowing whether they're cutting corners. "Well, we've got to get this job done. We're only going to relocate 100 of them." But they really should be relocating 200 or 300. We just don't know.

GOLDSTEIN: There have obviously been environmental concerns expressed about many aspects of wildlife and when it comes to building this new wall. Can you explain to us what this is indicative of potentially going forward?

DAHL: Yeah. It upsets me on a almost cellular level as someone who's grown up in Arizona, and I'm pretty old now. I've seen the changes. Mexico is not our enemy. We're not East Berlin and West Berlin. We don't need a wall to separate us. We need better cooperation and policies perhaps, but they're our friends. They're not our enemies. And to put a huge wall and put the concertina wire on parts of it just drives me as an individual citizen crazy. As someone who works to protect national parks, to scrape 60 feet along 30 miles — we're just creating a scar that will be there forever. One of my favorite places in the world is this Quitobaquito Spring and Pond. It's a true desert oasis. You're in the middle of very remote hot, dry desert, and then there's these springs that create a natural pond that's home of endangered fish, endangered turtle. There's an aquatic snail the size of half of a sesame seed. It's only home in the world is in those springs. And the fact that the construction of the wall may affect the aquifer that supplies those springs and dry up that pond just breaks my heart. And the fact that all the laws — the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act — that would be used for any other federal project to determine that "Oh yeah, this is this is not a place to put a wall. We'll use other surveillance. We'll do extra staffing. Instead of the $10 million-a-mile wall here, let's do something else so that we protect this incredible resource."

GOLDSTEIN: Do you think the video you shot can make a difference in any way, even just raising awareness among some of what's going on?

DAHL: I've been completely surprised by the response to the video. I'm now on your radio station, but I also would have been a Newsweek, Gizmodo. I got on George Takei's Facebook page which, you know, he has 10 million fans, and so they potentially have seen this. It looks like I might be invited to testify to Congress on this issue. As I think about this, It can be pretty abstract when you think about building a wall. You don't think, "Oh well they're going to bulldoze some saguaros." But they they're bulldozing quite a few superheroes and putting them in slash piles and not treating with them with the respect that I would want to see. Saguaros taken from my public land, from your public land.

GOLDSTEIN: Kevin Dahl is the Arizona senior program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.

KJZZ reached out to the Border Patrol for comment on the status of saguaro cacti in planned border fence construction zones. Daniel Hernandez, public affairs officer for the Tucson Sector of U.S. Border Patrol, told KJZZ that specialized arborists were hired to analyze which saguaros can be moved and which ones would not survive being transplanted.

“So, we've moved over 100 different saguaros within the past few weeks,” Hernandez said. “The saguaro in the video is one of the cases where the cactus could not be transplanted because of either its age, it might be diseased, or it might be damaged to a certain extent and wouldn't survive transplant, and so those are permanently removed. But the overwhelming majority of the cacti in the area are being relocated to a safe location to preserve them for many years to come.”

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Steve Goldstein was a host at KJZZ from 1997 to 2022.