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06/09/2011

Defeating a Wall by Climbing It

Dan Millis, wall climber
Dan demonstrates to border patrol officers how easy it is to climb a border wall.

Dan Millis has never met a wall that he didn't want to climb –- especially the U.S.-Mexico border wall.

"I actually try to climb every wall I see just to make a point," he says.

When Dan isn't demonstrating just how dysfunctional America's border policy is, he works as a grassroots organizer with the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter. You might have read about when he was charged with littering for leaving containers of water in open areas for migrants in search of a better life.

"A lot of deaths occur out there on the border because conditions are pretty terrible to cross, especially in the summer," Dan says.

Born in Flagstaff, Arizona, Dan's humanitarian work began several years ago with a group called No More Deaths. So how did he go from assisting hungry and thirsty migrants to working for one of the largest environmental organizations in the country?

"When I started learning about the environmental impact of our border policies, I saw there was a way to raise awareness of these flawed policies among a group of folks that hasn't really thought about it yet," he says. "It's been wonderful to be a liaison between environmental and human rights-oriented communities."

Dan's roots in the outdoors trace back to his studying abroad in Chile, where he'd go whitewater kayaking in Pucon. He became a Spanish teacher and worked on humanitarian treks along the border during summer breaks. During his time on the border, Dan noticed the diverse ecology of this politically tumultuous region –- an area mistakenly assumed to be a barren wasteland overtaken by tumbleweeds.

"Being from Flagstaff, I also thought of the border as having a bunch of sand blowing around and cactus, but it's not really like that at all. Having moved to the Sonoran Desert, I'm blown away everyday with how much life there is out here. It seems in many ways more alive than in the high altitudes and forest climate where I moved from."

Deer blocked by wall
Deer, along with countless other animals, are blocked the wall that cuts through the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area.

The 2,000-mile border contains everything from mountains to rivers, from sand dunes to some forested areas.

"With the different climate types, there's an amazing number of species," Dan says. "There's the San Pedro River, one of the few free-flowing, non-dammed rivers in the Southwest. The Santa Cruz River crosses the border twice. It's interesting topography and there are tons of areas worth protecting, like the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, which has everything from beaver to occasional black bears, and hundreds of species of birds."

The issue of immigration has relegated the environment in this region. U.S. politicians have tried several times to expand the border wall by hundreds of miles by incorporating it into the Patriot Act, the Fiscal Reform bill, and the Dream Act.

Some members of Congress are attempting to go so far as to waive all environmental standards for the entire border, maritime spots, and all coastline -- 20,000 linear miles, and 100 miles wide along the northern and southern borders. More than two-thirds of the U.S. population lives in this area. "In terms of scope, this is absolutely brutal," Dan says. "There are a lot of bad ideas coming out of Congress."

Otay Mtn Wilderness wall
Otay Mountain Wilderness suffers as a result of flawed U.S. border policies.

These walls are expensive -- at least $8 million a mile, with some designs costing tens of millions of dollars per mile. They are unreliable in addressing or deterring immigration, but they are very effective in ruining the environment. Dan believes the Otay Mountain Wilderness in Southern California in particular is the hardest hit. "They've literally plowed roads through designated wilderness and built several miles of wall along the southern edge of it."

Dan Millis climbing wall

Meanwhile, Dan will continue to climb walls for border officers just to show them how absurd these policies are. "I get a variety of reactions, from egging me on to sending helicopters out to detain me and cuss me out. I don't recommend climbing border walls but it's not too difficult to do."

Take action and tell your elected representatives to use common sense in protecting the wilderness along the borders. Visit the Sierra Club's Borderlands Team for more information. Read our profile of Borderlands activist Sean Sullivan and check out the Borderlands Team on the Activist Network.

(Photos of Dan climbing are courtesy of Italia Millan. Photo of the wall cutting through Otay Wilderness Mountains is by Scott Nicol. Photo of deer is by anonymous.)

-- Brian Foley

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