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Interior official: Border wall helps environment, sacred sites

Benjamin J. Hulac, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- An Interior Department official defended the Trump administration's construction of the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico as an environmental good, arguing that erecting that barrier will help at-risk plants, animals and Native American cultural sites from damage even as lawsuits allege otherwise.

Testifying Wednesday before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States at a hearing about the destruction of tribal sites and artifacts, Scott Cameron said a border wall would benefit the regional environment.

"If you're limiting the traffic, those resources are easier to restore and less likely to be damaged," said Cameron, principal deputy assistant secretary for policy, management and budget at Interior.

The border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, a hallmark of President Donald Trump's political campaigns and his time in the White House, has triggered a raft of environmental lawsuits, including over the destruction of ancestral sites sacred to Native Americans, which federal agencies have been detonating with explosives to clear space for wall construction.

While the Trump White House has sought deep cuts in environmental and renewable energy programs across the federal government, including at the Environmental Protection Agency and Energy and Interior departments, it has called for funding increases at the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Justice Department. That unit is responsible for much of the federal litigation about the wall, and the administration has used that money to hire more lawyers in anticipation of incoming lawsuits beginning in 2017.

Ned Norris, chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation, a tribe of more than 34,000 citizens in Arizona, told the subcommittee the government has not consulted his tribe.

 

The tribe's historic lands extend well beyond its reservation today, which abuts a 62-mile stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border. Federal agencies have failed to properly consult him or other tribal officials over detonations at several sites, such as Monument Hill, Norris said.

"I didn't learn about the blasting until the day of," Norris said of one case, adding of the wall, "I find it very hard to believe that the effort will help protect sacred sites."

Asked by Rep. Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, D-Ill., if the administration "adequately" consulted with tribes about detonations, Cameron demurred. "Adequacy is probably in the eye of the beholder."

Neither Cameron nor Republicans disputed that description of the Customs and Border Protection blasting in Arizona or destruction of cultural sites in connection with wall construction.

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