Disorder at the Borders: Photographers Aim To Document and Protect Borderland Environments

October 15, 2009



The Southern Boundary

While working on a story in April 2008 for Wildlife Conservation Magazine about transnational bison in southwestern New Mexico, Washington, D.C.-based writer and photographer Krista Schlyer was accompanying researchers on a flight over the herd's range when something caught her eye.

"I saw two bison jumping over the low barbed wire fence that marked the international border there," she remembers. "I had known about the wall before that, but that moment struck me, and I started working to raise awareness about it from then on."

The 'wall' Schlyer referred to was the impending barrier mandated in 2006 by Congress in its Secure Fence Act, intended to segregate the United States from Mexico over 700 miles of the two countries' shared boundary (all but thirty miles is now complete).

Increasing the structure's environmental impacts were provisions of the REAL ID Act, passed in 2005, that waived any laws or regulations that might interfere with "expeditious construction of the barriers" and severely limited legal challenges to waivers granted at the sole discretion of the Secretary of Homeland Security.

Concerned that the creation of such an impediment would pose a far greater impact on wildlife and the natural environment than human traffic, Schlyer turned to the International League of Conservation Photographers to document not only how the imposing structure altered the international landscape, but also how it affected the lives of people and wildlife that call the southern borderlands home.

The ILCP responded to Schlyer's alert with what has become that organization's signature response to environmental threats — a Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition. Designed to draw attention to an issue by focusing the skills of a number of recognized photographers on a particular locale for a finite period of time (see SEJournal, Summer 2008), RAVEs quickly produce a significant number of images for release to the media and other organizations seeking to promote similar environmental protection goals.

In fielding thirteen photographers over 2,000 miles of the US-Mexico boundary for almost four weeks during January and February of this year, the Borderlands RAVE became the ILCP's most ambitious such campaign to date. Altogether, the effort yielded over 10,000 separate images depicting the current state of the borderlands and life along it. And extensive ILCP blog entries by Schlyer and others detailed day-by-day progress of the RAVE, and can be viewed online here.

Creating the images is not enough. The weeks that the RAVE team put into making the pictures have been followed by months of effort by Schlyer and others to spread the message of the RAVE to as large a constituency as possible.

An early supporter of the work was Representative Raúl Grijalva (D) of Arizona, who has introduced legislation to give federal, state, local, and tribal land managers a say in border security decisions, and to restore laws intended to protect air, water, wildlife, culture, health and safety. At a Congressional briefing he hosted April 27, Grijalva screened a documentary on the borderlands RAVE, produced by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's multimedia division. Two days later, 30 large prints from the RAVE were displayed in the first-floor foyer of the Rayburn House Office Building.

Schlyer has been spending much of her time since then working on legislative matters with the Without Walls Network, a coalition including Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, Taxpayers for Common Sense, the Foundation for Change and Latin American Working Group.

The print exhibit is now on tour, having already visited Wyoming, New Mexico and Maryland. For the entire month of October, it will be on display at the Arts Council at the Federal Building in Greenwood, South Carolina. Then it returns to Capitol Hill for a one-week run in the Rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building starting Nov. 9th, which just happens to be the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The Northern Boundary

While the U.S. and Mexico share a river — the Rio Grand — that to a great extent separates them, Canada and the U.S. share a river in the west that very definitely connects the two countries, the North Fork of the Flathead.  Those knowledgeable about the national parks may recognize it as the western boundary of Glacier National Park in northwest Montana, a waterway that enjoys National Wild and Scenic River status.  But north of the border in British Columbia, where it rises and flows for its first 31 miles, the Flathead carries with no such similar protection.

That came as somewhat of a shock to Garth Lenz, a photographer based in Victoria, BC, when the ILCP asked him to lead a RAVE in July to document environmental threats to the headwaters of the river. He was aware of the impacts of mountaintop removal mining in the Appalachians, but "I had no idea it even occurred in my home province," he says. "But in the Flathead's neighboring Elk Valley, it's been a major economic force for many years."

Unlike the southern boundary where the fence or wall is already well established, the Flathead watershed in Canada has so far avoided disruption. The quality of its water is so pristine, according to the ILCP, that "scientists recognize it as relatively unspoiled." That could change rapidly if planned coal mining operations like those nearby expand. Or if a proposed gold mine on the banks of the river just ten miles upstream of Glacier National Park gets a green light.

Such threats were enough to prompt UNESCO to send a fact-finding mission to the Flathead Valley in September to determine whether the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, which was declared a World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve in 1995, is endangered by environmental degradation. If that's found to be the case, it will become the only such resource of "extraordinary cultural or natural value" to be so designated in North America.

Seven photographers contributed their efforts to the Flathead RAVE between July 16th & 29th (see their blog), supported by Wildsight, Flathead Wild and Lighthawk, a group of volunteer private pilots who provide aerial reconnaissance support for environmental causes.

Their efforts could not have been better timed.

In early August, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar visited the Flathead River along with Montana's Senate delegation and officials from Glacier National Park, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year. Standing on the river bank, he stated. "We have to aim for an international covenant between the United States and Canada that will protect the Flathead water basin."

Sen. Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat added: "I've been working on this for 33 years. I don't know of any effort that's more important."

Roger Archibald ( www.NaturalArch.com), a photographer and writer based in Boston, is the photo editor of SEJournal.

** From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal Fall 2009 issue.

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