What effect would miles of blazing stadium-bright lights have on birds, bees, bats and fish living along the Arizona-México border? It’s not a question conservationists expected the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency to even ask. 

Critics say that for nearly two decades the federal government has been skirting dozens of environmental, cultural or historical preservation laws to erect the border wall between the United States and México.

Now, in a reversal that’s surprised Arizona conservationists, a CBP spokesperson has stated that the agency would refer to federal standards to assess the environmental impact of the lights. 

That confirmation comes two days after Arizona Luminaria first reported on a June 6 study by the Center for Biological Diversity about how thousands of lights installed along the border threaten protected wildlife. The new commitment could also aid leaders of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument who have started the application process collecting the assessments and measurements needed for International Dark Sky Park certification.

Read more

In a June 8 emailed statement a CBP spokesperson said that the federal agency would “conduct a review of environmental impacts pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to install new lights where none exist and/or power on lights where lighting infrastructure had been installed. Through the NEPA process, CBP will evaluate the potential for environmental impacts and obtain feedback from the public and other stakeholders on lighting.”

Those opposing the glaring light pollution across the pristine borderlands sky, and the installation of more border infrastructure along regions critical to endangered species, see the review as a potential shield for a site sacred to Indigenous nations, protected by national and international conservation policies, and cared for by Arizonans working to preserve public lands.

​​Ruskin Hartley is chief executive officer and executive director at the International Dark-Sky Association. The Tucson-based organization works on five continents to protect the night from light pollution. 

“We are encouraged to read CBP’s response committing to follow the NEPA process when lights are installed or energized,” Hartley said.

“The review must consider all alternatives,” he added, “including immediate removal of all lights installed in naturally dark areas, and the potential of the lights to reduce the effectiveness of existing surveillance systems.”

Protecting the darkness

Immediate removal is the Center for Biological Diversity’s primary demand. In a June 6 letter to CBP they urged them to remove the lights already installed and commit to not installing any other lights.

“​​CBP’s commitment to engage in the NEPA process is a major win for the borderlands,” said Laiken Jordahl, southwest conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, and one of the co-authors of the report. “Ignoring environmental laws has become a cornerstone of CBP’s policies. So, we were both shocked and excited at their announcement committing to engage in the NEPA process for electrifying border lighting.”

In 2005, when Congress passed the REAL ID Act, they authorized the federal government to bypass any law that would hinder the “expeditious construction of the barriers and roads.” 

The Sierra Club, a national environmental protection organization with local branches, has counted 48 different laws that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has waived in order to build segments of the border wall. The impact of waiving of these laws was detailed in 2018 by Friends of the Sonoran Desert, a Tucson-based conservation organization.

Those laws include the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Arizona Desert Wilderness Act and the Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act.  

Brian Segee is the center’s endangered species legal director and senior attorney. He noted the novelty of CBP’s response and that solutions lie with federal legislative action. 

Thousands of border lights, some broken and leaning, threaten protected ecosystems along the border in Arizona, according to environmentalists. Credit: John Washington

“CBP’s commitment is significant, and we’re looking forward to learning more details,” Segee said. However, he added, “Until Congress repeals the waiver authority [granted by the REAL ID Act] the risk of CBP asserting that authority will always remain, but we take seriously the agency’s public pledge to conduct NEPA prior to electrifying border lighting.”

Segee is unaware of anyone suing CBP for publicly committing to following the federal environmental policy act and then not following through. He said that there are lawsuits pushing for adherence to the federal environmental act.

In 2017, the center and Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D- Ariz., filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration for not following the federal environmental policy act while they were building segments of border wall. A 2021 ruling in that case specified that before CBP went through with the construction they should have “considered and evaluated the need for supplemental environmental analysis.”

More recently, Segee said that the federal government has faced lawsuits from anti-immigration groups and state attorney generals claiming that officials with the Department of Homeland Security should have conducted an environmental policy act analysis prior to stopping border wall construction and prior to ending pandemic-related immigration policies. 

The lawsuit was filed in July 2021 by former Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, claiming violations of the federal environmental policy act and that the Biden administration’s decision to temporarily terminate border wall construction was part of an “overarching program seeking to augment the United States population through increased migration and decreased immigration enforcement.” 

The state of Arizona displayed no such environmental concern as hundreds of miles of wall were going up.

In early 2022, an Arizona judge dismissed the argument that the federal government should have conducted an environmental study before stopping to build the wall as “counter-intuitive (if not absurd).

After the judge’s opinion, the state sought to appeal, but has since voluntarily dismissed its appeal.

The question of whether or not the lights will be turned on, or if more will be installed,  remains unanswered.

Study could protect wilderness and wildlife

CBP also said in response to questions from Arizona Luminaria that information about environmental studies are always published online at CBP.gov. Notifications are sent to stakeholders which “could include local communities, non-governmental organizations, Tribal nations, state and local elected officials, and agencies such as the Department of Interior (DOI),” the CBP spokesperson specified. 

They also noted that “CBP is currently consulting with federal partners, including DOI, on lighting and potential environmental impacts.”

Arizona Luminaria reached out to CBP on June 9 and to the Department of the Interior on June 12 about when exactly the consultation began, what the focus is, and what they’ve found so far about environmental impacts. On June 13, a Department of the Interior spokesperson referred Luminaria back to CBP for all details. CBP has not yet responded.

“For more than a decade the agency has operated entirely outside the rule of law, inflicting horrific, often permanent damage to wildlife and communities in Arizona and across the borderlands,” said Jordahl, of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Jordahl hopes that CBP follows through with its commitment to conduct a National Environmental Policy Act study.

“Any true analysis of the harms caused by blasting stadium lights into conservation lands will prove what we’ve been arguing all along: these stadium bright lights have no place in border wilderness areas and wildlife refuges.”

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print.

John Washington is an investigative journalist based in Tucson with a focus on immigration and borders, as well as criminal justice and literature. His first book, "The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum...