CORONADO NATIONAL FOREST — The U.S. government and Arizona environmentalists are fighting Gov. Doug Ducey’s ongoing effort to wall off sections of the state’s border with Mexico using state-purchased shipping containers.
The state's contractor is stacking the steel freight boxes in a line that spreads west from the Huachuca Mountains, an area known to periodically harbor endangered jaguars and ocelots dispersing out of Mexico. That’s one reason the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity sought and last week obtained a judge's permission to participate in the case in opposition to a lawsuit that the governor filed seeking retroactive approval of his plan.
Environmental advocates fear the containers will wreck important migration corridors for larger species, and more fully block the movement of small creatures than the slatted wall that the federal government has built elsewhere on Arizona's border. The center said its legal intervention will allow it to show the wall’s “extensive damage” to habitats, and urged the federal government to move quickly to block further construction.
“That wall is harming endangered species as we speak,” said Russ McSpadden, a Southwest conservation advocate for the group. As evidence, he provided video footage of an ocelot captured by motion-sensing cameras less than 2 miles north of the new wall in 2018 and 2019. Blocking the path to and from Mexico would prevent the re-establishment of a breeding population north of the border.
The judge's consent means the center can join as a defendant in the governor's lawsuit. Ducey went to the courts to justify construction across federal lands on the grounds that the Biden administration is subjecting Arizona to crime and smuggling by failing to secure the border. Meanwhile, federal attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the governor’s case.
The state’s Department of Emergency and Military Affairs already has constructed a 3,800-foot length of wall on federal and tribal lands near Yuma, without federal permission to do so, and is now working on a 10-mile stretch southwest of Sierra Vista. The latter is on U.S. Forest Service-managed public lands and would block numerous seasonally flowing drainages and wildlife migration corridors if left in place.
“While the issues at the international border with Mexico are difficult, trespassing on and damaging the United States' lands, violating federal law, and usurping and obstructing federal agency jurisdiction and missions, are not the solution,” U.S. Attorney Gary Restaino wrote in the government’s motion to dismiss Ducey’s lawsuit.
McSpadden has visited the site weekly since work began, gathering photographic evidence of the wall and resource damage and sending that to Forest Service officials. The workers have widened dirt roads, bulldozed dozens of oak trees and blocked ephemeral streams important to plant species of concern, such as the Huachuca water umbel.
“Shipping containers are trashing one of the most beautiful places in Arizona,” he said.
Ducey blames lax federal enforcement
Ducey, the Republican governor who leaves office next month, sued the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Reclamation in October, asserting that the state, and not those agencies or other federal officials, should have authority over a narrow strip of land along the border.
The Coronado National Forest extends across a zone south of Sierra Vista and west of the Huachuca Range, where contractors have erected several miles of the containers this month. The Bureau of Reclamation manages a separate stretch where the state previously paid to erect a wall of containers along the Colorado River at Yuma.
One point of contention is a 60-foot strip set aside in 1907 for security reasons along the public lands that touch the border in Arizona. President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed that it should remain free from obstruction to allow for enforcement against smuggling. This "Roosevelt Reservation" has generally allowed for federal — not state — border enforcement there. The governor argues that the proclamation was unconstitutional because it lacked congressional backing, and that the state should at least have “concurrent jurisdiction” on that land.
The governor’s legal filing blames southern Arizona crime on lax federal border enforcement and says the state could not wait for federal assistance in securing the border.
“Governor Ducey has taken action when the federal government has failed … to prevent the imminent danger from such crises and further depletion of State resources,” according to his complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Phoenix.
The state Department of Emergency and Military Affairs has led the $95 million project. Exhibits filed with the lawsuit show that personnel from its Division of Emergency Management had sought to coordinate with Coronado National Forest Supervisor Kerwin Dewberry. The supervisor wrote to department Director Allen Clark in October reiterating that the state was not authorized to complete the work without seeking a permit from the agency. At that point, he wrote, his staff had witnessed 22 containers placed on forest lands.
Reached for comment on Tuesday, Dewberry’s office declined to answer questions about the project, its potential resource damage and any management effort to halt it. Staff deferred to the Forest Service’s national headquarters, which declined comment while the litigation is pending.
Work continues on container barrier
On Wednesday, forest staff issued a news release advising people to stay away because the shipping containers may create a safety hazard.
“The Forest Service has informed the State that the presence of the containers is unlawful,” according to the agency statement. “Until the situation is resolved, visitors to the Coronado National Forest, including those seeking to recreate, hunt, or collect fuelwood, should refrain from entering the area where the State’s activities are taking place or otherwise exercise caution when traveling to the area.”
There was no evidence that the agency had sought to gate the area to stop construction, and McSpadden said he has not encountered Forest Service personnel on his weekly outings to document the activity.
Before Ducey filed suit, Dewberry had asked the state to refrain from placing more containers without obtaining proper authorization. But when The Arizona Republic visited the site in late November, crews had extended a ribbon of double-stacked containers across the first 3 miles or so of what the governor’s lawsuit says will be a 10-mile stretch.
Truckers were trailing them from a staging yard north of Sierra Vista and heavy equipment operators continued placing and stacking them at a clip of several per hour, hoisting them atop each other with chains attached to the buckets of large excavators and then shoving the pairs into place.
'This is a political stunt'
The grassland valley stretching from the Huachucas to the Patagonia Range nearer Nogales were not included in the Trump administration’s federal border wall construction. But the border was already fenced with waist-high steel Normandy barriers consisting of welded rails that prevent vehicle but not foot traffic, and not most wildlife species.
The site, extending west from the foothills at Coronado National Memorial, ripples with dry washes that cross and sometimes recross the border, waterways that can gush with force during monsoon rainstorms. Motion-activated cameras set out by conservationists have shown that these washes, with oak-studded banks, are active wildlife trails.
They are less active as smuggling corridors, according to photos shot by the Sky Island Alliance’s research cameras in recent years. The group has a Forest Service permit to leave cameras on the landscape for its research on wildlife crossings.
“This is a political stunt,” said Eamon Harrity, wildlife program manager for the Sky Island Alliance.
For Harrity’s organization, which focuses on the health and interconnectivity of mountain habitats in southern Arizona and Sonora, the expanse that the governor’s shipping containers are now crossing is a critical zone. The San Rafael Valley, and the Huachuca and Patagonia ranges that bound it, are among the only stretches of Arizona border still open to wandering wildlife. For that reason, the Sky Island Alliance has spent the last three years placing and monitoring the motion-detector cameras on a grid. The idea was to document a baseline of wildlife activity and what might be blocked if the federal government’s wall were ever extended there.
Advocates: Barriers are more effective at blocking wildlife than people
With a pre-existing wall extending east from the Huachucas to New Mexico, the zone in and around the San Rafael Valley remains one of the best alternatives for endangered jaguars and ocelots to move between core populations in Mexico and their historic but generally unoccupied range in the U.S.
Sky Island Alliance cameras have detected a wide variety of wildlife on the border, including black bears, coatis, ringtails, porcupines, possums, three types of deer including the Coues subspecies, and four skunk species. Bobcats and coyotes frequently show up.
“It’s a very rich landscape, a rich environment with a combination of species that’s kind of unique,” Harrity said.
The missing species — jaguars and ocelots — are of particular concern, both ecologically and legally. Terrain on the U.S. side of the border is federally designated as critical habitat to protect any cats that roam there.
A scenic overlook atop Montezuma Pass in Coronado National Memorial offers a view of the shipping containers stretching west across the valley as if stacked on rail cars. The containers cut across a dirt road normally frequented by Border Patrol vehicles, and in some places the contractors have widened that road to make room for both the containers and normal traffic.
The row of steel containers undulates with the land and its dry washes, in places buckling to leave triangular gaps to which welders have attached sheet metal to make them less passable. Similarly, the terrain beneath some of them exposes a gap large enough for a human to wriggle through, though further efforts could pack them with dirt.
Persistent migrants might also cut through the steel, Harrity said. Unlike the slatted bollard walls that the federal government has built elsewhere, the shipping containers will shield people on the Mexican side from the sensors and cameras the U.S. Homeland Security has erected on posts just to the north. This could give border crossers a head start on Border Patrol, he said.
“This wall is less effective against people but more effective against wildlife,” Harrity said. “It’s not solving any problem.”
The Sky Island Alliance has not yet reported the data compiled from its first three years of camera monitoring. But Harrity said less than 1% of sightings have been of humans, and most of those were Border Patrol agents moving along the road.
One camera positioned in a wash near where the new wall crosses previously showed whitetail deer and coyotes frequenting the area at night, he said, but that activity has stopped. Now the organization is installing more cameras closer to the wall to see how it is altering wildlife behavior.
The governor’s spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the project’s effects on the environment and endangered species. Ducey’s lawsuit does not address environmental impacts. A news release that his office put out in late October said there was broad support for his plan to plug gaps in the federal government’s border wall, and linked to a KPNX-TV interview in which Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., said, “This is a crisis. I get his (Ducey’s) frustration.”
The governor’s news release quoted state Rep. Gail Griffin, a Republican who represents the area where the wall is under construction, as saying the Biden administration has “forgotten their duty to protect the nation’s border.”
Press secretaries for Kelly and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the emerging wall’s environmental tradeoffs.
Environmental groups say the federal government must move to stop the project, which is on pace to finish before Ducey’s term ends.
“The feds really need to step up,” McSpadden said. “This is their jurisdiction.”
In a separate legal action, the Center for Biological Diversity in October filed notice of its intent to sue the state for violations of the Endangered Species Act. In that case, the center will seek to force the barrier's removal, if federal officials have not already done so.
Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Environmentalists call state-built border wall a risk to wildlife