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In late June, President Trump visited Arizona to campaign while highlighting the completion of the 200th mile of wall along the southern border with Mexico. The event echoed Trump’s 2016 presidential bid that included a pledge to “build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I’ll have Mexico pay for that wall.”
Facing political and legal challenges to the project, Trump has signed executive orders to greenlight the project.
Already the site of a heavily militarized presence attempting to block migration, the lightly populated region containing the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation, Coronado National Forest and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge is now a massive federal construction zone.
Work has continued throughout the summer, with daily temperatures well above 100 degrees and a Covid-19 outbreak that has ravaged the rural region, particularly the Tohono O’odham indigenous people.
Recently, I traveled in the Sonoran Desert and through rural Santa Cruz and Pima counties, Arizona, to document actions to build a 30-foot high border wall.
Westward from Nogales for more than 100 miles, I found an unfinished and incomplete construction project slicing through wilderness areas that critics say violate federal law. Here’s what I saw.
The Wall in Nogales, just west of the Nogales border checkpoint, is covered in dense layers of concertina wire, despite the Nogales City Council passing a resolution condemning the installation.
The city council’s resolution read, as reported by CBS News, “Placing coiled concertina wire strands on the ground is typically only found in a war, battlefield, or prison setting, and not in an urban setting.”
The Nogales City Council added that using razor wire “that is designed to inflict serious bodily injury or death in the immediate proximity of our residents, children, pets, law enforcement and first responders is not only irresponsible but inhuman.”
Trump’s much larger and more aggressive wall is replacing sections of the border much more passable for people and wildlife. The section of the wall seen below is in the Coronado National Forest a few miles west of Nogales, where a handful of cattle were outnumbered by the large contingent of Border Patrol agents monitoring activity in the zone.
Clearing the suburban and exurban sprawl west of Tucson, I drove through the Tohono O’odham Nation before reaching the copper mining town of Ajo.
The Tohono O’odham tribe has members live on both sides of the U.S-Mexico border and has resolutely opposed to Border Wall construction
In February, Tohono O’odham Chairman Ned Norris Jr. testified before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States.
“These sites are not only sacred to the Nation; they are a part of our shared cultural heritage as United States citizens,” Norris said. “For us, this is no different from building a 30-foot wall along Arlington Cemetery or through the grounds of the National Cathedral.”
“The federal government owes our government and the governments of local border communities more respect,” Norris said.
Much of the Wall construction is occurring on federally protected wilderness areas, including the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. On the way to Organ Pipe, I interviewed Laiken Jordahl of the Center for Biodiversity.
Jordahl is an activist and organizer who has been documenting Border Wall construction during the Trump administration. He is also a former National Park Service employee and ecologist in the region.
“The Organ Pipe area, it’s a wilderness area, it’s a UNESCO Reserve, it’s a National Park unit, it has all of these layers of protection because it’s so special,” Jordahl said. “Also, it’s just one piece of this huge Sonoran Desert ecosystem. It’s basically the heart of the Sonoran Desert. You combine Organ Pipe with Cabeza Prieta, and huge protected areas in Mexico, it’s one combined ecosystem that is co-managed by each country.”
Throughout the construction zone, dozens of formerly designated restoration areas were bulldozed to make way for equipment and work. “That’s why it’s just so shocking to see Trump’s Border Wall just ripping through that place. You’d think that all of those protected designations would be able to stop a project like this. But, because the Trump administration has waived every single relevant law, those protections haven’t held up,” Jordahl said.
The construction project is particularly damaging to wildlife migration patterns.
“The wildlife corridors of Sonoran pronghorn, which are endangered, the migration of species, is managed as a shared binational natural resource. And now we’re seeing the wall be built right through the heart of this connected ecosystem,” Jordahl said.
“The border is really just an arbitrary line. It’s deeply troubling, and the implications particularly on wildlife habitat and wildlife migration are severe. This wall is going to change the evolutionary history of this entire region.”
The construction zone was filled with destroyed saguaros, one of the most prominent plant species throughout Southern Arizona.
“Especially for someone who’s actually from Arizona, there’s something deeply unsettling about seeing that destruction of the saguaros. Saguaros are the icons, the sentinels of the desert here, and they’re deeply sacred to the Tohono O’odham tribe,” Jordahl said.
Saguaros play a major role in Tohono O’odham identity, culture and spirituality. The People’s creation stories are based around the saguaro. The long-lived cactus is also an important source of food, and is the center of the Tohono O’odham annual calendar.
Construction crews are pumping groundwater from the desert aquifers to support concrete production, and to spray dust on the desert access roads. I witnessed water pumping both east and west of the Quitobaquito Springs, a sacred site for the Tohono O’odham and also a rare water source in the local ecosystem.
“It’s a horrific site right now. Water levels have never been this low. The spring flow just hit an all-time low,” Jordahl said. He shared a U.S. Geological Service springflow report documenting the precipitous decline.
U. S. Representative Raúl Grijalva (D, AZ-3) represents the region. Grijalva is also the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee and a critic of both the border wall and the construction impacts on the ecology and Native people of the Sonoran Desert.
“It looks like Trump’s border wall continues to damage environmental treasures and sacred Native American sites like Quitobaquito Springs,” Rep. Grijalva said in a statement about the Quitobaquito Spring water levels to the Arizona Daily Star.
“Whether it’s destroying Native American cultural heritage or damaging the habitats of endangered species, Trump’s wall has brought nothing but destruction to Southern Arizona,” Grijalva stated. “What’s happening in Organ Pipe is one of the many reasons why we should end wall construction once and for all.”
But border wall construction continues. Under President Trump’s orders, I saw contractors from Southwest Valley Constructors and Kiewit Construction on site.
According to news website UPI, $524 million has been awarded to Southwest Valley Constructors and Kiewit has received about $1.8 billion in border wall contracts. The project has an estimated completion date of Sept. 7, 2021.
All Photographs by Bryce Oates