A Decade of Destruction under the Real ID Act

A Decade of Destruction under the Real ID Act

By Krista Schlyer


Eleven years ago, the Real ID Act became law. Environmental damage isn’t what most people think of when they consider the outcomes of Real ID, but an obscure provision tucked away in section 102 of the law has forever scarred the wildlife and public lands of the US-Mexico borderlands.

This provision allows the executive branch to strip protections from endangered species like the Sonoran pronghorn – the fastest land mammal in the western hemisphere, –the tiny cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, and the majestic Mexican gray wolf. Real ID allows the federal government to destroy essential migration pathways for the ocelot, jaguarundi and jaguar – three critically endangered wild cat species of the borderlands. Globally rare ecosystems that migrating birds need for respite on their long journeys have been scraped bare of their vegetation.

The law goes even further. Real ID gives the Department of Homeland Security the authority to waive all local, state and federal laws in order to build border walls, barriers and roads. By 2008, then-DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff had waived 37 laws along the border, including the Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act and National Park Service Organic Act. It was the largest waiver of law in US history and it caused intense damage to some of the most beautiful and unique national parks, wildlife refuges and other public lands that form the bedrock of our nation’s natural heritage.

I have seen the damage our government has done to our public lands. My photography book, Continental Divide: Wildlife, People and the Border Wall, documents fragile desert wilderness scarred forever by the tires of Border Patrol vehicles; wildlife like mountain lions, cottontail rabbits, deer and javelina trapped at the border wall within lands that are supposed to be spaces of refuge for them. Wildlife and people drowned in floods caused by infrastructure built outside the bounds of environmental law.

Have we learned from this destruction? No. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) last year introduced S750, ironically titled the “Arizona Borderlands Protection and Preservation Act,” which would exempt Border Patrol from all laws within 100 miles of Arizona’s border, further diminishing environmental protections for wildlife and lands.

Disregarding our nation’s laws and destroying our most treasured lands will not make us more secure. Ten years of the Real ID Act environmental waivers have proven that. Though it didn’t pass, lawmakers should be aware of and strongly oppose reckless bills like Senator McCain’s, and return essential environmental safeguards to wildlife and our public lands.


Krista Schlyer is the author of Continental Divide: Wildlife, People and the Border Wall, winner of the 2013 National Outdoor Book Award.

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