Bill Pape is an avid hiker and Sierra Club member. He’s also a staunch supporter of a border wall between the United States and Mexico. In 30 years of traipsing rocky slopes and dirt trails along California’s southern edge, he has seen everything from coachwhip snakes, ring-tail cats and golden eagles to the decomposing bodies of migrants who tried to cross the blistering desert into the U.S.
Pape, 63, lives in Jacumba Hot Springs, population 600, on the border of San Diego County and Baja, where an existing border wall slices the length of this mountain town. He thinks the nation’s current immigration policy is inhumane, and says he’s seen first-hand how a correctly constructed border wall can cut crime without harming wildlife.
Major conservation organizations disagree.
Many are adamantly opposed to any wall cutting off the flow of already decimated species, and are suing to overturn President Donald Trump’s emergency declaration and suspension of environmental laws at the border.
Biologists familiar with the terrain here agree having a 1,900 mile wall is unthinkable, but say there’s room for compromise on the rocky terrain of politics in certain places.
Pape is not alone in his opinion. Other area residents don’t see the steel fencing as a “big, beautiful wall,” as Trump calls it. They don’t even see it as his — it was first built under President Bill Clinton and expanded under President George W. Bush. Despite their appreciation of nature, they see it as indispensable.
“These national environmental groups, they don’t live on the border and they don’t understand what it’s like,” said Donna Tisdale, 66, founder of Backcountry Against Dumps and an ardent preservationist in the even tinier border town of Boulevard, west of Jacumba. “I don’t really like the wall environmentally, but we live here. I think it’s a necessity.”
She and her husband own a 200-acre ranch and love seeing bobcats grooming themselves on their front deck, grazing deer out back and myriad other animals. But years ago, her husband also had an automatic weapon aimed at him when he tried to stop a truck carrying would-be immigrants barreling across their land.
Biologist Mark Jorgensen, who was the longtime superintendent of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park just north of here, said, “I understand those people and their concerns for safety. But it is extremely important that we value wildlife corridors as well as walls. We value border security, but hey, wildlife is important in the U.S., too.”
The lens of history here in eastern San Diego county stretches across decades rather than election cycles, and is governed more by rural living mixed with vivid memories of local kids in the 1990s going to prison for international drug smuggling and violent, weapons-brandishing convoys racing through town.
Once a sleepy, friendly place whose Mexican neighbors in Jacume sent their children through the simple wire and stick fence at the end of Railroad Street to the local American elementary school, Jacumba was transformed into a major migration and drug smuggling corridor after Operation Gatekeeper in urban San Diego forced cartels and coyotes to shift to the east.
In 2004, the former owner of the Jacumba Hot Springs resort pleaded guilty to smuggling scores of immigrants into town. His lawyer said he felt sorry for them because his own family had fled Nazi Germany, and that he needed their rent for his failing motel. But Pape said there were daily, high speed chases down the town’s main street.
These days, heavy, barricaded bollards and corrugated metal walls run behind the library, the senior center, “Snob Hill,” “Relaxo Ranch” and other local spots. In October, a 650-foot long tunnel from Jacume into Jacumba was discovered underground, 15 feet from the front porch of a rental home which Pape owns. In the past two weeks, Army vehicles have arrived to install razor-edged concertina wire on top of the walls.
“It’s certainly ugly, but you can’t climb over it,” Pape said. “The fences that we have … have made a dramatic difference in security. I’m sure there’s still some activity going on, but it’s a lot more discreet … not brazen.”
The wall hasn’t cut into his outdoor recreation. “I can take off in any direction and just go,” said Pape, who co-leads regular weekend hikes across nearby wilderness areas, ancient Native American sites and other untrammeled open spaces. “There’s not a lot of brush in the way.”
Other species also crisscross the region, drawn by the same cool breezes at higher elevation and the springs tumbling out of granite rocks that have brought humans to this remote corner for thousands of years.
An added attraction are natural hot springs, formed by a fissure between two earthquake faults. “Ja – cumba” roughly translated from the ancient Kumeyaay Indian language means “hot water” or “rising water.” Native cooking spots can still be seen in the center of town, a block from the resort — actually a motel with a mineral-fed hot tub next to the restroom at its Raven’s Nest bar, a different type of watering hole.
“All these little communities across the Southwest are nestled up against water sources because they needed those springs or creeks. Well, the same is true of the wildlife, they need the water,” said Dan Millis, the Sierra Club’s Borderlands coordinator, based in Tucson, Ariz. Millis said wildlife along many stretches of the existing 650-mile border wall from San Diego to the Rio Grande have suffered due to habitat fragmentation, loss of food and other impacts. “It’s death by a thousand cuts,” he said.
Jorgensen agreed. Rare jaguarina, prong-horned sheep, burrowing owls and Quino checker spot butterflies all have had habitat cut in half by the imposing physical barricades.
The Jacumba area is a vital transitional zone between the Yuha desert floor and formidable mountain peaks, Jorgensen said, which includes mid-range slopes, deep canyons, fractured granite boulders, chaparral and a wide range of vegetation, from pines to live oaks. It makes for scenic hiking, and it’s also perfect habitat for everything from lizards to large mammals.
Foremost among them are the endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep. Descendants of their species’ own migration from Asia half a million years ago, the rams need hundreds of miles to move and mate, as do the male mountain lions that feed on them. The curly horned ungulates once roamed from Palm Springs deep into Mexico.
But their numbers plunged due to urbanization, disease and fragmentation of habitat. The species was declared federally endangered in 1998. By then a sub-population north of Jacumba and the Interstate 8 freeway had been all but wiped out, with just 28 sheep remaining. By setting aside additional park lands, restricting illegal off-roading and other measures, those numbers increased to 232 sheep by 2010.
“It’s exceptional, the rebounding of that sub-population,” said Jorgensen, who has studied bighorns for decades.
To the great joy and relief of Jorgensen and other researchers, the sheep have also begun re-inhabiting their historic range, crossing the freeway into the Jacumba Wilderness and moving on into Mexico.
“The population down there does not recognize international boundaries. It freely uses the area on both sides,” said Sally Theriault, visitor center manager for the Anza-Borrego state park, which stretches south nearly to the border.
State fish and game scientists have monitored hundreds of crossings by radio-collared bighorn sheep in recent years. They’ve also watched a male mountain lion, which traveled south through the state park 30 miles into Mexico, “where he probably fed on sheep and then turned around and came back to the exact spot where he’d been radio-collared three months earlier,” Jorgensen said. A ram was tracked traveling 70 miles through six sub-populations.
Having adequate varied terrain, including mountain passes and grassy desert areas, allows them to move away from extreme drought, up into cooler areas as climate change takes hold, and to increase genetic diversity. Rams crowded into smaller areas will inbreed with close female relatives, causing birth defects and other problems that kill off lambs sooner.
So how have they managed to make such a comeback, despite miles of physical barriers?
Jorgensen doesn’t mince words when it comes to President Trump’s proposal: “He’s a New York businessman who doesn’t know a thing about what wildlife or the American people want.”
But years ago, Jorgensen spoke with a different Republican elected official about the Jacumba wilderness.
“I had seen this area and I discussed this with Rep. Duncan Hunter Sr. several times, and I would say (he) was a good proponent for the bighorn sheep in more ways than one. Duncan Hunter Sr., not Jr.,” he said.
“It was decided that there was no way vehicles could get over the mountains beyond Jacumba and down onto the desert floor. But bighorn will go along ridges and piles of boulders which vehicles cannot reach.”
The decision was made to allow wildlife to pass through there between the two countries.
Today, the border wall dead-ends into Airport Mesa. Mountain lions, coyotes and the sheep and mule deer they feed on cross the border freely high above town. The open stretch remains a vital trans-boundary opening. For now.
There’s still Trump’s push to complete the wall, which does not sit well with many.
“They should not close off that gap,” said Michael Rood, an Imperial County attorney who has spent weekends hiking the area for years. “I think we’ve got enough wall as is.”
Pape agrees the open area needs to stay, and notes that it’s impassable for vehicles or people. But he could see erecting the wall across Davies Valley just over the Imperial County line and other low-lying areas. It wouldn’t just stop crime, it could save lives, he says. Three times in the 1990s he stumbled across corpses — two not far from each other when he was doing a night hike in Pinto Canyon, and the third, badly decayed, as he hiked in the Valley of the Moon.
Nationally, the Sierra Club and other environmental and human rights organizations say the evidence shows that’s incorrect. Much of the unauthorized entry and drug smuggling have simply shifted further east to Yuma, Ariz., and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. They say Trump is violating federal laws by ordering construction of fencing without assessments of potential harm to ecosystems and wildlife. Environmental groups in western San Diego, Arizona and New Mexico support the lawsuits, saying rare butterflies and other species are being harmed.
Closer to home, Tisdale says she knows there’s an impact on nature and on area groundwater. When it rains, the wall through Boulevard blocks off free-flowing runoff into washes, causing muddy floods and other problems. People here live off of wells, just as animals live off of area springs.
“It cuts migration routes for wildlife, it does. We’ve got mountain lions, we’ve got deer, we’ve got the bighorn sheep down by Jacumba,” she said. “And It’s pretty much a nuisance when water can’t flow its natural course. It also reduces the recharge rate of our aquifer. We’re all on groundwater.”
But her solution isn’t to tear down the wall — it’s to use a different style. The old Vietnam-era corrugated metal landing mats that were installed under Clinton can easily be climbed by people, she notes, while rain and mud backs up on either side during heavy storms. The more modern, thick steel bollards installed under Bush that now stretch across part of Jacumba would curb human migration even more, she says. And the water and smaller species could pass right through.
That’s not good enough, says Jorgensen, who said high posts with a few inches of space between them still add up to an impregnable wall .
“A solid wall for 1,900 miles is not a compromise,” he said. “Like I mentioned before, what could work is if everybody could stand there and say, ‘here’s where vehicles can go, we’re going to put barriers across those, and here’s where they’d never be able to go, and that’s where we’re going to leave it naturally open.”
He stops for a minute, then thinks of one more species that’s in trouble.
“You’ve also got the flat-horned lizard, which has a very restricted range. I know the answer is going to be, ‘who cares about flat-tailed horned lizards? We’re talking about drugs and murder here.’ My answer is, there needs to be accommodation for wildlife that’s been here for millions of years.
“We’re a supposedly advanced, civilized society, most of our needs are cared for here, unlike the countries where many of these people trying to get here are from. We also need to be good stewards for wildlife.”