GLENS FALLS — After the 2016 presidential election, biologist Heather Mackey said she knew she wanted to do something to protect the things she cares about most.
That’s why it made sense for Mackey, a Glens Falls native, to make the 1,200-mile arduous trek across the nation’s southern border, from El Paso, Texas to the Gulf of Mexico, with four others as part of a recently premiered documentary, “The River and the Wall.”
For two-and-a-half months — December 2017 to February 2018 — the five friends undertook an immersive trek by horse, mountain bike and canoe, documenting the potential impact of a border wall on the nation’s last remaining wilderness along the Rio Grande.
“Places they are targeting (for a border wall) are really important biodiversity areas,” said Mackey on Thursday, explaining that a border wall would cut off access to the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. “Ninety percent of the refuge would be cut off and separated.”
Next Saturday (May 4), Mackey returns to the area for a Q&A session that will follow the 3 p.m. screening of “The River and the Wall” at the Charles R. Wood Theater in Glens Falls.
The documentary premiered last month at the SXSW (South by Southwest) Film Festival in Texas, winning the “Lewis Black ‘Lone Star’ Award” for work that critics said was the “most important work at the festival.”
Mackey is busy moving this week to the state of Washington for her new role as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist at the Julia Butler Hansen Refuge. She was selected for the documentary because of her wide-ranging scientific research in remote areas like Hawaii, Alaska and Texas, where she studied bird and butterfly communities in Big Bend National Park.
Each character in the film was hand-selected by conservation filmmaker Ben Masters, who was one of the five travelers. The others were National Geographic explorer Filipe DeAndrade, ornithologist Mackey, river guide Austin Alvarado and conservationist Jay Kleberg.
Along the way, the group interviewed dozens of people, including politicians like Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke and U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas. They talked to ranchers, farmers, Dreamers and families living on both sides of the border.
Mackey, who was the 2006 Glens Falls High School salutatorian, said growing up in Upstate New York, she had not been exposed to immigration issues.
The stories of two of her follow travelers enhanced her awareness.
“It really hit home how much it affects everyone,” she said.
“Filipe’s Mom brought him and his sister from Brazil, and he spent most of his childhood undocumented. For the first 15 years of his life, he was living in fear. And Austin came from Guatemala and his parents were undocumented,” she said.
Sometimes, people think of the border area as a flat wasteland, but there are huge spectacular cliffs, she said.
“I was amazed that the Rio Grande is so wild and beautiful,” she said.
Contrary to some news accounts, the connection between El Paso and Juarez, Mexico is like walking across the street for residents living on both sides, Mackey said, although the dynamic has been affected by recent crackdowns.
“It is one community with families living on both sides,” she said. “I don’t think I realized this.”
Almost everyone they talked to did not want the wall.
“They want increased security, but didn’t think that was the solution,” she said. “Rep. Will Hurd said, ‘You can’t treat the border as one size fits all. It doesn’t make sense to build a wall. It is the most expensive and least effective way to handle the border.’”
Mackey explained that the Rio Grande River is the border in many places and walls have already been built or are planned about a half-mile into the U.S. from the border, effectively ceding the land to Mexico.
“Landowners do not want to lose hundreds of acres to the federal government, and they would lose their only access to water,” she said. “They are irrigating with water from the Rio Grande. Most of this area is desert and the wall would cut off their only water source, cutting off the lifeblood.”