Organ Pipe Cactus National Park is in Arizona. It contains some of the oldest plants in the United States and is one of our globe’s most fragile eco-systems. Home to Saguaro and Pipe Cacti, it also houses at least 22 archeological sites. Its existence is so rare and valuable, it has been designated an UNESCO world heritage site.
Why should we in the North Carolina mountains worry about what’s happening in a desert in Arizona? Because it reflects the general behavior of our current national administration in almost everything else it does. And what happens there might, down the road and with different particulars, happen here.
First, there already exists a five-foot barrier in the park, which deters automobiles from entering our country from Mexico. Moreover, the park does not get as much undocumented worker traffic when compared to areas closer to urban centers. So, the need for such a barrier is dubious at best.
Second, the plans to construct a new 30-foot high barrier, designed to deter any animal migration from the smallest desert critter to someone seeking asylum, were initiated without going through the normal public comment sessions and environmental studies. The EPA and the Interior Department, to avoid pesky legal challenges that might have delayed the start of construction, simply fast-tracked plans to bulldoze land and build.
Third, Administration minions said they would protect the cacti to be displaced, moving them to other parts of the park. Videotapes from the construction site indicate that was an example of public relations Newspeak. The dozers came, they saw, and they crashed through whatever was in front of them. Much of what got tumbled into the dirt was over one hundred years old. In other words, we won’t see their like again for many generations.
Fourth, the work being done in the park is happening, because the federal government already owns the land, conveniently forgetting that it does so as a public trust for the use of future generations. So, irritating press exchanges about imminent domain can be delayed until after the 2020 election, since building more wall in highly trafficked locations will require securing private property from owners unwilling to sell it. There are two important points to keep in mind about the location and timing of this job. It’s taking place before the 2020 election, so there is a barrier backdrop for election advertisements and an acknowledgement that, yes, some new wall went up. It’s taking place in a way that forestalls debate over often unpopular eminent domain rulings.
In many ways the destruction in Organ Pipe reflects too well the carelessness, rapacity, and narcissism of our current President. First, it lets the administration continue its pursuit of dinging an all-too-awful, in their minds, institution: the United Nations. An UNESCO site? Who cares? An international ecological treasure? Forget it; we do what’s good for Americans in America.
More disturbing is it’s not even needed, but we’re going to do it anyway. Far too many Executive actions haven’t been necessary, but have been designed to ”send a message” or “appease the base.” There was already a fence there. There are miles and miles of places where there is far greater human traffic and no fence. This one is being built with money that, for example, would have been used to repair schools for the children of overseas Armed Forces members had not the Administration repurposed it.
As for environmental protections, well, this Administration is only concerned about them when they profit it or their friends. So, we can weaken regulations on other people’s clean air and water as well as fast-track projects without due process to help our economic allies. Besides, in this case, it’s only desert fauna and flora at stake. It’s not like we’re ignoring things that affect red-blooded Americans. Of course, there are those folks in post-hurricane Puerto Rico or who live among the Oklahoma earthquake fields or who have seen their wells permanently contaminated by coal mines removing mountaintops or whose overseas base schools will continue to be overcrowded who might wonder why they don’t quite count.
Then there is the penchant for lying that so permeates this Administration. They lied about the process. They lied about protecting the plants. They lied about the need for the barrier. They lied about lying.
I can remember when Republicans were up in arms about President Clinton lying to a Special Prosecutor to cover up an embarrassing, private affair – every, and I mean every, detail of which somehow became public. Some of those Republicans were even engaged in their own private affairs, but no matter. Impeachment, Ho! We currently have a President who, as of mid-August, 2019, has told the American public over 12,000 false or misleading things. And a majority of them were not about embarrassing affairs, but about things that really matter.
Additionally, our current President knows a good deal about eminent domain. (Google “Vera Coking,” for an example.) He’s used it to remove people whose homes were in the way of his construction projects. He also knows it’s usually not good for one’s image. He’s an image guy. He knows how to spin that image. And he knows there is an election coming up. After the election, were he to prevail in 2020, it might be back to past practices.
As for public trust, I’m not sure there’s much concern about the general public happening right now in Washington. The House has passed a bunch of bills about things that concern our general welfare (gun legislation, voting reforms, prescription drug prices, veterans affairs, etc.), only to see them not even assigned to Senate committees, much less brought up for a vote. The Attorney General now, apparently and contrary to precedent, works for the President and not the public. The President’s children decry a former Vice-President’s son engaging in corrupt practices for profit, as they profit from their father’s position on both his and their behalves. And way too many people tolerate Presidential behaviors that are crass and ugly (ad hominem attacks on perceived enemies), misogynist or racist (there are “very good people on both sides” and “I grab them by the p***y”), or simply unnecessary and cruel (cold cells, foil blankets, children separated from parents).
Public trust in a democracy is a fragile thing. Without it, cynicism rises. Without it, civic participation declines. Without it, democratic government ultimately fails. And consider who would benefit from its loss.
Yet, as the Trump Administration’s behavior in Organ Pipe attests, we must have some wall – forget the costs (in this case irreplaceable costs). Place a bull in a policy china shop and breakage is simply the cost of doing business, of advancing the story
1 The Smoky Mountains National Park is also a designated World Heritage site. At one time it displayed that designation on the signs at the main entrances. Such signs were gradually replaced without mention of UNESCO, as ties with that organization became unpopular with Republicans. The Trump Administration withdrew the United States from UNESCO in 2017
2 Thankfully, that barrier did not disturb the ability of every animal to migrate and was built to do minimal damage to plants.