PHOTOGRAPHER’S PROJECT: Photography, Conservation and the Borderlands

Story and photography by Krista Schlyer

Blackbirds and the wall in South Texas.

Blackbirds and the wall in South Texas. © Krista Schlyer

The borderlands of the United States and Mexico occupy a sprawling 2,000-mile-long stretch of land, much of it a wild, remote landscape. Within this region exist some of the most spectacular and biodiverse ecosystems in North America: the mountainous sky islands that rise above the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts; the sub-tropical Lower Rio Grande Valley, home to creatures found nowhere else in the United States; and wide-open grasslands that provide a last vestige of this globally imperiled ecosystem and homes for kit fox, prairie dogs, gray wolves and bison.

A pauper's cemetery in southern California houses many graves of unidentified migrants lost in the desert.

A pauper’s cemetery in southern California houses many graves of unidentified migrants lost in the desert. © Krista Schlyer

For the past ten years, these unique borderlands ecosystems, defined by natural boundaries of altitude and latitude, have been at the mercy of a heated debate about a political boundary, and all the vitriol that can accompany lines on a map. In 2005, the U.S. Congress passed the Real ID Act, which allowed the Department of Homeland Security to waive all laws on the United States-Mexico border, in order to expedite building a wall between San Diego and Tijuana. In 2007, Congress passed the Secure Fence Act, which mandated 750 miles of border wall be built along this border. Much of that wall construction jeopardized the very existence of endangered species, like the jaguar, ocelot, jaguarundi and Sonoran pronghorn. But because the Real ID Act allowed Homeland Security to disregard all law, the barrier was built. To date, 37 laws protecting wilderness, wildlife, water and air quality, archeological treasures and sacred native places have been indefinitely waived on this border.

For the past nine years, I have been working to document the changes that U.S. immigration and border policy have had on the quiet borderlands. I’ve seen walls go up, blocking the passage of bison, foxes, toads and all other terrestrial species. I’ve seen rare habitat destroyed on national wildlife refuges. I’ve visited the graves of desperate migrants trying to find hope in a new land. And I’ve listened as politicians bellowed about how they are going to bring all-out militarization to this irreplaceable landscape that I love.

Desert cottontail at the border wall during construction in southern Arizona. © Krista Schlyer

Desert cottontail at the border wall during construction in southern Arizona. © Krista Schlyer

What I know for sure after all these years of study and documentation: people find ways around walls if they are desperate enough, but most often, wild species cannot. American taxpayers have spent untold billions of dollars on walls and militarization, and all we have managed to achieve is the further endangerment of vulnerable wild creatures and the destruction of our borderlands landscape.

I started The Borderlands Project to help other people see and understand what I’ve seen. Through this project I’ve partnered with the International League of Conservation Photographers and worked with some of the most talented and dedicated conservation photographers I’ve known. I’ve created and traveled an exhibit across the country and back again many times over. I’ve published a book called Continental Divide: Wildlife, People and the Border Wall (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3KLSqtHS6zQ) and presented slideshows all over the nation. I’ve worked with some of the most dedicated grassroots conservation activists around. My main partner has been the Sierra Club Borderlands Team (http://sierraclub.org/borderlands), a group of mainly volunteers who have devoted their lives to protecting borderlands wildlife and ecosystems from nonsensical policies born of Washington politics.

Open grasslands like these in Janos, Chihuahua, are some of the last relatively intact grasslands on the continent. As global warming continues to cause droughts in this region, diverse species--from pronghorn to bison and kit fox--will need to move northward in order to survive. © Krista Schlyer

Open grasslands like these in Janos, Chihuahua, are some of the last relatively intact grasslands on the continent. As global warming continues to cause droughts in this region, diverse species–from pronghorn to bison and kit fox–will need to move northward in order to survive. © Krista Schlyer

Over the coming year, as our pitched presidential campaign unfolds, we will hear more and more about the need for walls to keep us safe. Walls cannot and will not ever keep us safe, but they may succeed in destroying some of the richest and most rare wild places on the continent.

If you’d like to support this work, please donate to the Sierra Club Borderlands Team (http://sierraclub.org/borderlands). You can order my book at any bookstore and most online book sellers, or get a signed copy on my website: http://kristaschlyer.com/book-store.

 

Krista Schlyer is a conservation photographer and writer living in the Washington, D.C., area. Her work has been published by BBC, The Nature Conservancy, High Country News, Ranger Rick, National Parks and Sierra. Schlyer is the author of three books including Continental Divide: Wildlife, People and the Border Wall, winner of the 2013 National Outdoor Book Award. She is also the 2014 recipient of the Sierra Club’s Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography and NANPA’s 2015 Vision Award. Schlyer’s newest book, Almost Anywhere, recently released by Skyhorse Publishing, chronicles a road trip to America’s national parks and wilderness areas.