Ranchers blindsided by Trump’s border wall

They built a coalition to protect open space. Now, they’re up against the country’s largest construction project.

 

Bill McDonald, the founding executive director of the Malpai Borderlands Group, walks atop Cowboy Flats in Coronado National Forest in southern Arizona.

Since 1994, the Malpai Borderlands Group, a coalition of ranchers, has worked to steward approximately 800,000 acres of rangeland in southern Arizona and New Mexico. The group started with the idea that if its members — ranchers from multiple generations who worked the land — could come together to manage the landscape with other stakeholders, then broader regional decisions could be made with their input.

They have been lauded as a model of collaboration for their work with environmental groups, scientists, nonprofits and federal and state land managers, with the goal of using ranching as a tool for conservation while safeguarding the land’s ecological importance. And for the past two decades, this approach to finding common ground has worked. What was once a tense relationship between ranchers and environmentalists became a strong partnership in the Borderlands.

Ranchers have worked to restore the watershed through a series of small rock structures that slow water runoff during heavy rains, recharging groundwater. A cattle-pond enhancement project aided the threatened Chiricahua leopard frog. The group has received money from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal agency, to enhance water sources for both the ranchers’ cattle and the wildlife that cross through their land, and their work has helped inform regional fire-management decisions. Approximately 86,000 acres of land have been protected through conservation easements, maintaining ecological connectivity in a region that both ranchers and environmentalists feared would be fragmented by subdivisions.

But with three of their ranches located along the U.S. Mexico border near the San Bernardino Wildlife Refuge, there was one development the group’s collaborative efforts couldn’t stop: Trump’s border wall.

In January, as the 30-foot bollard wall was being erected just a few hours away — carving up wildlife habitat, cutting off water sources for animals like jaguars, javelina and mountain lions, and cordoning off open space between the United States and Mexico — the Malpai Borderlands Group gathered for its annual Science Conference in the sparsely populated town of Rodeo, New Mexico.

Attendees listened to experts talk about things like drought monitoring, invasive grasses and wildlife activity. In his opening remarks, Myles Traphagen, the group’s science coordinator, set the tone for the event. He talked about the various geographies that collide here: the Sierra Madre from the south and the Rocky Mountains from the north, the Chihuahuan Desert from the east, the Sonoran Desert from the west and the Great Plains. With the border wall on his mind, he told the crowd of ranchers, land managers and scientists: “We have some serious threats facing us right now, which could potentially alter that long-term evolutionary history.”

In attendance was Bill McDonald, the former executive director and founding member of the Malpai Borderlands Group. He was wearing a red long-sleeved shirt, suspenders and a white wide-brimmed hat. A fifth-generation cattle rancher, he won the prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 1998 for his work in land conservation.

When asked about his thoughts on the border wall, he told me he feels betrayed by the government. The group approached Border Patrol much the same way it pursued relationships with diverse regional stakeholders — through building trust. Until last March, McDonald thought they were all on the same page. The group takes border security seriously; in the early 2000s, some of its ranches were situated along drug-trafficking routes. The ranchers helped the Border Patrol place surveillance towers on their property, and over the years, border crossings fell significantly in their sector. A Customs and Border Protections spokeswoman told HCN that,while the current apprehensions may be down, CBP reportedly has reasons to believe this area is at high risk for illegal traffic in the future.” 

As recently as June, U.S. Border Patrol Agent Dion Ethell, who heads the station in Douglas and who gave updates to the Malpai group, told a local news station that illegal border crossings had fallen to less than 1% of the high of 235,000 in 2000. 

So, when McDonald learned that the wall would cut through the open space the group worked so hard to protect, he was shocked. “I personally felt like I kind of failed. I thought we had something there that we didn’t have,” he said. “It’s damaged our relationship with the Border Patrol for a long time.”

In an op-ed published last year, Richard Winkler, the Malpai group’s current executive director, called the wall “a glaring lack of respect for our efforts.” “The fact that local landowners, who actually live on and near the border, have not been consulted, is an affront to the democratic ideals that America was built upon.” 

But McDonald said the wall has caused some rifts among the group’s members. Meetings have gotten heated between the majority who oppose construction and the “two or three people in the group that felt strongly (in favor of it),” McDonald said. “They are frankly big supporters of Donald Trump.”

McDonald thinks the group will weather the tension, but he can’t help but take the wall personally. “It hurts,” he told me. He had recently put a conservation easement on his own ranch, something he had wanted to do for a long time. With the wall going up, though, “it just felt kind of hollow,” he said. His land doesn’t abut the construction, but it connects to a neighboring ranch, whose land does. The point of the easement was to protect the open space and strengthen habitat connectivity for wildlife. Knowing that a 30-foot wall equipped with harsh lighting was now going to interfere with that, “ it didn’t feel the same,” he told me.

“Now that I’ve been involved with this group, I care about the whole land, not just my ranch, and it is definitely a dagger.”

Jessica Kutz is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...