Interior secretary moots routing wall through Mexico to skirt geographic challenges like Rio Grande river

The Santa Elena Canyon in the Rio Grande river and a cliff that is Mexico

Geographic and physical challenges — including the Rio Grande and threatened wildlife — will make it difficult to build the “big, beautiful wall” that President Donald Trump has promised on the U.S.-Mexico border, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Wednesday.

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Building a wall “is complex in some areas,” including Big Bend National Park and along the river, which twists through nearly half of the 2,000-mile border, Zinke said.

Interior secretary moots routing wall through Mexico to skirt geographic challenges like Rio Grande river Back to video

Hundreds of species live within 30 miles of the border, including threatened jaguars and Mexican grey wolves. The Trump administration is poised to relax protections for the jaguars, which live in northern Mexico and parts of the southwestern United States, to make it easier to build the wall.

Rodrigo Abd/AP

Throughout the campaign, Trump energized his crowds with his insistence that a wall will be constructed along the border and that Mexico will pay for it. Zinke’s comments, and the administration’s budget proposal seeking billions in U.S. taxpayer dollars to finance the project, offer a reality check and a possible sign the president is moving away from his initial plan.

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The complications Zinke highlighted were the same faced by Trump’s predecessors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as they sought to build or complete hundreds of miles of fencing along the border.

Fencing that is already in place is a mixture of various designs, including towering steel bollards designed to keep both people and vehicles from moving north and shorter steel posts aimed only at blocking cars. In parts of Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, some stretches of fencing are nearly a mile away from the border in part to accommodate flood plains and an international treaty.

after passing under the World Trade Bridge from Mexico into the United States August 7, 2008 in Laredo, Texas. Agents in the Laredo sector of the border patrol the Rio Grande River in half a dozen 18″ Diamondback John Moore/Getty Images

after passing under the World Trade Bridge from Mexico into the United States August 7, 2008 in Laredo, Texas. Agents in the Laredo sector of the border patrol the Rio Grande River in half a dozen 18″ Diamondback John Moore/Getty Images

And in Texas, almost all of the land along the border is privately owned. When Bush tried to build border fencing starting in 2006, he faced stiff opposition from local ranchers and farmers, many of whom took the government to court on plans to use their land.

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The Department of Homeland Security is responsible for the border wall, but Zinke said the Interior Department will play a critical support role. According to the Government Accountability Office, federal and tribal lands make up about 632 miles (1,017 kilometres), or roughly 1/3 of the nearly 2,000-mile (3,218-kilometres) border.

“At the end of the day, what’s important is American security and to make sure we have a border,” Zinke told reporters on a conference call. “Without a border a nation cannot exist.”

An internal report prepared for Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly estimated that a wall along the entire border would cost about $21 billion. Congressional Republicans have estimated a more moderate price tag of $12 billion to $15 billion.

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Molly Riley/AP

Molly Riley/AP Photo by Molly Riley / FR170882 AP

Customs and Border Protection said in a statement Wednesday that cost estimates are “premature as there are many variables that are currently unknown.” The agency said it could not provide a detailed estimate for the project.

Kelly told Congress in January that a wall wouldn’t be a complete fix for the border.

“A physical barrier in and of itself will not do the job,” Kelly said during his confirmation hearing. “Certainly it has to be a layered approach.”

Zinke’s comments appeared to bolster that view and followed remarks he made Tuesday to the Public Lands Council, a group that represents Western ranchers.

“The border is complicated, as far as building a physical wall,” Zinke said in remarks first reported by E&E News. “The Rio Grande, what side of the river are you going to put the wall? We’re not going to put it on our side and cede the river to Mexico. And we’re probably not going to put it in the middle of the river.”