Remarks to administration officials written for the California Wilderness Coalition, which is joining a lawsuit against several of the proposed border wall extensions through San Diego County and our southern border.
By Tommy Hough
Being an outdoors fan, when I first arrived in San Diego in 2002 I set out to explore our region's coastal parklands, foothill open space areas, and the forests, meadows and hidden canyons that make up the "spine" of San Diego County in the local mountains of the Peninsular Ranges. This in addition to the magnificently preserved, carefully managed, and geologically extraordinary Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in the eastern third of the county.
Only later, after living in San Diego for several years, did I become aware of a fascinating slice of wild, rugged desert mountains just east of the San Diego and Imperial county line along the border of the U.S. and Mexico, and managed for protection by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as the Jacumba Wilderness.
Included as part of the 1994 Desert Protection Act, the Jacumba Wilderness contains mountains that reach heights of 4,500 ft., and appear to be "sprinkled" from top to bottom with colossal, rounded boulders and rocky outcroppings that look nothing like the low-elevation Colorado Desert that expands from it to the north and east. While a separate geologic bloc, the mountains are similar to the northernmost reaches of the Sierra de Juárez range just a few miles to the south across the border with Mexico.
Portions of this geology can be seen up-close along Interstate 8 at Mountain Springs and the In-Ko-Pah Grade, as the freeway descends from the Peninsular Ranges into the Imperial Valley, with the eastbound and westbound lanes each taking individual canyons through the route.
Similarly, to the south in the northernmost portion of Baja California, the Rumorosa Highway winds along these mountains in a series of dramatic switchbacks. While the views are spectacular, it's difficult, and clearly dangerous, to get out and fully appreciate the area at speed on a steep freeway grade, whether in the heat of summer or during the not-infrequent snowstorms which can blanket the area in winter.
And that's one of the reasons I'm so concerned about the future of the Jacumba Wilderness, especially as new extensions of border wall are to be implemented along the area's international boundary with Mexico.
I was recently in Jacumba Hot Springs as a new segment of border wall was being added to the old, Clinton-era Operation Gatekeeper fence, topped with ominous and deadly concertina wire – something no nation should have along a friendly border. I was disturbed to see a stark line of border fence, now over twice as high, extending for approximately two miles to the east, over the western slope of the Jacumbas. This is absolutely not a place where wild processes should be impeded.
The border is, and always has been, an invisible line that means nothing to the winds and wildlife that have moved through these rugged, harsh canyons for millennia. Given the frequent furnace-like temperatures, the balance of life is so on edge and fragile in a place like the Jacumbas that even with the inherent protections that come with wilderness management, sealing off either side of the wildlands from each other will not only serve as a death sentence for dozens of species – but will lead to interbreeding and less diversity overall.
The Wilderness Act was specifically tailored and intended to avoid this very fate for natural processes and places where "man is only a visitor." Should these border walls go in and replace the fences of barbed wire now there, it will be in defiance of the spirit of the act.
On the Mexico side of the border the same natural processes that we find in the Jacumba Wilderness continue for a dozen miles in each direction – which is partially why the area was so suitable for wilderness designation in the first place.
There are areas of the southern border in Arizona where barriers have been installed that enable wildlife movement but impede, or at least discourage, off-road vehicle and ATV traffic to such an extent that the necessary slowdowns for someone crossing illegally to slalom through the barriers would no doubt catch the attention of Border Patrol. I would recommend these kinds of barriers be utilized in the Jacumba Wilderness instead of sealing off entire ecosystems in a wild area already known for fierce heat and brutally rugged terrain, completely devoid of water, and patently inhospitable to long-term exposure.
San Diego County is the most biologically diverse county in the lower 48 states, and it's because of our coastal, foothill, mountain and desert climates. Because of that location, the region is a key spot for birds along the Pacific Flyway, as birds migrate north and south along the western edge of North America.
The nearby Salton Sea, in particular, has proven to be a popular spot for a wide array of birds, but in a place like the Jacumba Wilderness one can see and hear this wildlife without crowds, without noise – without anything – except the natural processes which brought those birds there. A wall 30 feet, 40 feet, 50 feet high will undo much of the special sanctity of this wild country for birds and humans alike. It will become a cage.
One of the best indicators of a healthy, balanced ecosystem is the presence of large, "charismatic" predator species like mountain lions, which is something the Jacumba has, along with more plentiful bobcats, which are seen as seldom as their larger cousins. The giveaways of their presence are the tracks, which are plentiful when one knows what to look for. Building a wall along this boundary will trap animals on one side from the other, further reducing respective gene pools and weakening these critical natural actors. Within a few years, the entire wilderness could look very different with one of the top regional predators unable to have its "trickle down," for lack of a better term, effect on other species in the region.
And then there's the price to humans – and the peace of mind, solace, autonomy, opportunities for meditation and communing with nature that we so desperately need as a society and a people, that will be irreparably harmed as another long-term cost of these ugly walls. And so needless when other options are considered.
My friends and fellow outdoor advocates have our special routes, trails and campsites in these mountains, and we value the time we spend in a place as wild as any in the United States, where we can hike, explore, and marvel at the surprise call of the canyon wren, or the aromas cast aloft on the warm breezes in the afternoon. It is then we can truly reconnect with ourselves, our environment and our planet, and feel we are part of something far greater than our time – which was another consideration written into the wisdom of the 1964 Wilderness Act.
Please consider some of that wisdom as you make these decisions, which seem to be so appallingly based on short-term political desires, instead of the natural bounty which it is your job to manage, and defend.
Photos by (top to bottom) Christopher Czaplicki, Tommy Hough and Francisco Valenzuela.
A former San Diego broadcaster and media personality, Tommy Hough is a wilderness and conservation advocate, communications professional, California Democratic Party delegate, and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action.