In the Coronado National Memorial — where conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado entered what is now Arizona — contractors are pulverizing the wilderness in a rush to put up as many miles of border wall as possible before the Trump administration vacates Washington.
They're dynamiting mountainsides and bulldozing pristine desert for a barrier the incoming Biden administration is expected to cancel.
"Wow! This is almost like busy work they're doing," exclaims biologist Myles Traphagen as he drives his truck up to the construction staging area and beholds the destruction for the first time. He specializes on the Arizona borderlands for the Wildlands Network.
"They're cutting roads into a place where no vehicle could go, not a four-wheeler," he says. "But now they're cutting into the mountain to create access to build a wall."
This is one of 29 construction projects being performed by 13 different contractors from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas. In Arizona, contractors have added shifts — they're working all night long under light towers to meet Trump's goal of 450 miles of new barriers before his term is over.
Trump's wall forcing unplanned experiment on deserts
"There's no doubt they're accelerating the rate of construction," says ecologist Ron Pulliam, who has been monitoring the wall's progress on the Arizona border. "They're trying to do as much as they can in the next 50 days. And Trump wants to fulfill his promise that he's securing the border."
Landowners and conservationists are irate. Gary Nabhan, a longtime author and ethnobotanist in the region, says Trump's wall is forcing an unplanned experiment on the deserts of Southern Arizona.
"The wall is going through such sensitive areas and going up so fast that no one knows what effect it's going to have on wildlife," he says. "I mean, we have no idea what 24/7 lighting will have on the bats that pollinate at night."
The reason the 30-foot wall with its high-intensity security lights and wide patrol road is sparking such outrage is because of the region's rich biodiversity and stunning natural beauty. Critics consider this a desecration of some of the last wild places along the U.S.-Mexico divide.
Dramatic landscape alteration documented
The Department of Homeland Security has waived dozens of federal environmental protections — such as the Arizona Wilderness Act and the Endangered Species Act — in order to erect the wall in these sensitive landscapes, and to avoid lawsuits.
In New Mexico, Arizona and California, the government is erecting the wall on a 60-foot strip of federal land that parallels the international border called the Roosevelt Reservation.
Wall construction proceeds much more slowly in Texas where most of the border acreage is in private hands and must be acquired through the power of eminent domain. But with a change of presidents only six weeks away, U.S. attorneys have sped up their condemnation of property along the international river in Texas to build the wall.
The dramatic extent of landscape alteration in the remote Arizona borderlands is being documented through drone footage shot by John Kurc. He's a wedding and rock 'n' roll photographer from Charleston, S.C., who fell in love with the Sonoran desert. Gray hair tumbles out of a sombrero, as he sets his little aircraft on the ground.
A critical wildlife corridor
"So what I'll do is I'll fly fairly close to the top of that ridge to try to determine where they're going to dynamite," he says, directing his drone toward the defaced slopes in the Coronado.
Nature lovers come here for the oak-dotted canyons, rugged peaks, extravagant vistas and grasslands so verdant that the nearby San Rafael Valley was used as a setting for the 1955 musical Oklahoma!
Moreover, the area is a critical wildlife corridor. Two endangered cats — the ocelot and the jaguar — crisscross the international boundary looking for water and prey.
"There's only a 4-inch gap between the bollards in the wall," says Traphagen, who joined Kurc for the drone excursion, "so it excludes anything larger than a ground squirrel."
The drone descends out of the brilliant blue sky like a giant insect, with the first images of the Border Patrol's new roads up the west side of the mountain. Kurc says when he visited this place three months ago, it was unscarred.
"And now what I'm seeing is a thousand times worse," he says. "Now I'm documenting destruction versus complete wilderness areas."
Contractors continue their work even though President-elect Joe Biden has said there won't be another foot of wall constructed in his administration. Biden's transition team did not answer an email asking when and where the new president may stop wall construction.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the massive $15 billion project, says it will not speculate on actions the incoming administration "may or may not take."
"Unless a Suspension of Work order is issued, USACE expects contractors to continue work as obligated under their contracts," the agency said in statement.
'Border wall has made our city safer'
U.S. Customs and Border Protection maintains that the barrier is necessary to gain operational control of the Southwest border. The agency says the mountainous zones — as beautiful as they may be — are used by drug and human smugglers, and the agency's mission is to stop that illegal traffic.
Much of the current wall is replacing dozens of miles of so-called Normandy barriers that stop vehicles driving over from Mexico, but not people on foot.
"I know there's wildlife and all that stuff. But at the end of the day, as callous and as horrible as this sounds, I think the lives of people is a lot more important than anything else," says Art Del Cueto, with the National Border Patrol Council, the agents' union. He is not a spokesman for CBP.
"I think it's important to have wildlife out there. But I don't think enough research has been done to actually say, 'Hey, if you build out here, all the jaguars in the world are gonna die.' I think it's more of a cop-out for some people, and they use that as their little ace up their sleeve so they can prevent border security."
Del Cueto's hometown is Douglas, Ariz., which sits across from Agua Prieta, Mexico. "When I was growing up in Douglas," he says, "you were having groups of 50 and 60 illegal aliens running through the alleys."
Today, Douglas is sealed off from Mexico by a tall wall built under President George W. Bush and completed by Trump.
"What we used to see in this city was illegals running up and down our alleys, through our streets, chases by the Border Patrol. (It was) unsafe for our local citizens," says Douglas Mayor Donald Huish. "The border wall has made our city safer. It's pushed that type of activity outside our city limits."
Huish was unaware that wall teams have been dynamiting near Guadalupe Canyon — another beloved, biodiverse natural area located east of Douglas, where he goes deer hunting. When shown an iPhone photo of the new switchback roads zigzagging up Guadalupe Peak, he reacts with shock: "Oh no! It's hard to believe that that was the solution. That's not good."
"The wall is a good solution for around the city limits," he continues, "but once it gets outside of town into the wilderness area, that's where the surveillance technology should have taken over. But nobody asked my opinion."
Opponents say the wall will worsen flooding
Like Huish, many landowners are upset by plans for the massive steel-and-concrete barrier in the malpais, or badlands, near the Arizona-New Mexico border. Owners of the Diamond A Ranch sued the government last week in federal court.
"In many portions of the proposed border wall, grades before construction began were so steep that the land was accessible only by foot and mule," reads the complaint.
Blasting crews have used explosives — they call it pioneering — to level the cliff sides for access roads. "Clouds of demolition dust, shrapnel, and car-sized boulders have come tumbling down the Roosevelt Reservation onto ranch property," says the complaint, which calls for an immediate halt to construction.
Opponents also say the wall will worsen flooding. The structure crosses numerous dry creeks and riverbeds. During the rainy season, they turn into torrents that carry tons of debris that could clog the steel-bollard barrier and cause floodwaters to back up.
So far, the Trump administration has won nearly every court challenge to the border wall. And CBP assures that it will dispatch crews to unlock gates in the wall to let the floodwaters pass.
But that has not mollified neighbors. Valer Clark is president of Cuenca Los Ojos, a land conservation group that has spent decades restoring ranchland and wetlands in Mexico on property next to Trump's wall.
"It's horrific," she says. "I mean, it's 40 years of work that I'm seeing dry up, and for what? As an American, I feel ashamed."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In Arizona, contractors are rushing to put in as many miles of border wall as they can before the end of the Trump administration. Landowners and conservationists are protesting the bulldozing of pristine natural areas. And let's remember, this is all for a barrier that the incoming Biden administration is expected to cancel. NPR's John Burnett reports from the Arizona-Mexico border. And just a warning - there is offensive language in this story.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Four-hundred and eighty years ago, the conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado entered what is now modern-day Arizona. Now that spot is called the Coronado National Memorial, and today, contractors are pulverizing this protected wilderness to erect Trump's border wall.
(SOUND OF WELDER WORKING)
BURNETT: A welder repairs the bucket of an excavator that's being used to build the switchback roads zigzagging up the slopes of the Huachuca Mountains. Myles Traphagen, a biologist specializing in the Arizona borderlands, has driven here from Tucson. He parks his truck and beholds the altered landscape for the first time.
MYLES TRAPHAGEN: Wow. I wonder, like - this is almost like busy work that they're doing.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It is busy work.
TRAPHAGEN: You know? They're cutting roads into a place where no vehicle could go, not a four-wheeler. But now they're cutting into the mountain to create access to build a wall.
BURNETT: This is one of 29 construction projects that are underway from the Gulf of Mexico to Southern California. They're still going, even though Joe Biden has said there won't be another foot of wall constructed in his administration. Here in Arizona, contractors have added shifts. They're working all night long under light towers to meet Trump's goal of 450 miles of new barriers.
RON PULLIAM: There's no doubt that they're accelerating the rate of construction.
BURNETT: Ecologist Ron Pulliam has been monitoring the wall's progress on the Arizona border.
PULLIAM: They're going to try to do as much as they can in the next 50 days. And Trump wants to fulfill his promise that he's securing the border.
BURNETT: The extent of the ecological destruction down here is largely known through the drone photographs of John Kurc. He's a wedding and rock and roll photographer from Charleston, S.C., who fell in love with the Sonoran Desert. Gray hair tumbles out of a sombrero as he sets his little aircraft on the ground.
JOHN KURC: So what I'll do is I'll fly fairly close to the top of that ridge to try to determine where they're going to dynamite.
(SOUND OF DRONE FLYING)
BURNETT: Kurc spends long days out here in the desert documenting what critics call the desecration of some of the last wild places along the U.S.-Mexico border. He and Traphagen can watch a handheld screen to see what the drone camera is seeing.
KURC: Hey, Myles, take a look at this. This is something you can't see from where we are. They've already cleared the mountaintop. See how they've flattened it out? That's the actual border right here.
BURNETT: The reason the 30-foot wall, along with its bright security lights and patrol road, are outraging conservationists is because this region is considered a biodiversity hotspot. Several North American mountain ranges converge here, and it's roamed by two endangered cats, the ocelot and the jaguar. Homeland Security has waived dozens of federal environmental protections in order to erect the wall in these sensitive landscapes and avoid lawsuits.
(SOUND OF DRONE FLYING)
BURNETT: The drone returns from its flyby of the defaced mountain and descends from the brilliant blue sky like a giant insect.
(SOUND OF DRONE FLYING)
BURNETT: Kurc says he was here three months ago when it was unscarred.
KURC: And now it's - what I'm seeing is, you know, a thousand times worse. Now I'm documenting destruction versus complete wilderness areas.
BURNETT: The Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees wall construction, says work crews are fulfilling their contracts. U.S. Customs and Border Protection maintains the barrier is necessary to gain operational control of the southwest border. They say the mountainous zones, as beautiful as they may be, are used by drug and human smugglers, and the agency's mission is to stop that illegal traffic.
ART DEL CUETO: Yeah. And I know there's wildlife and all that stuff. But at the end of the day, as callous and as horrible as it sounds, I think the lives of people is a lot more important than anything else.
BURNETT: Art Del Cueto is a spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council, the agents' union.
DEL CUETO: Yeah, I think it's important to have wildlife out there. But, you know, I don't think enough research has been done to actually say, hey, if you build here, all the jaguars in the world are going to die. I think it's more of a cop-out for some people, and they use that as their little ace up their sleeve so they can prevent border security.
BURNETT: Some Arizonans are solidly in favor of the border wall in certain areas. Donald Huish is mayor of the city of Douglas that sits on the international line.
DONALD HUISH: What we used to see in the city is illegals running up and down our alleys, through our streets, chases by the Border Patrol, of course, unsafe for our local citizens. The border wall has made our community safer. It's pushed that type of activity outside our city limits.
BURNETT: Then I handed my iPhone to the mayor and showed him a picture of the demolition of nearby Guadalupe Peak, where he goes deer hunting. It was the first time he'd seen the huge gashes in the mountainside.
HUISH: Oh, no. Oh, goodness. That's hard to believe that that was the solution. That's not good.
BURNETT: Like the Douglas mayor, many locals are upset. They say the government should use high-tech surveillance in these remote areas to spot traffickers, not a massive steel and concrete barrier. The Diamond A ranch near the Arizona-New Mexico border sued the government last week. It claims the dynamiting above Guadalupe Canyon has sent car-sized boulders tumbling down onto ranch property.
Opponents also say the border wall will cause flooding. The structure crosses numerous dry creeks and riverbeds. During the rainy season, they turn into torrents that carry tons of debris that could clog the steel bollard wall and cause floodwaters to back up. Not to worry, assures CBP. Agents will unlock gates in the wall to let the floodwater pass.
(SOUND OF WHISTLE BLOWING)
BURNETT: While landowners are skeptical of the solution, crews are working around the clock pouring concrete culverts in the drainages. Valer Clark is the 80-year-old president of Cuenca Los Ojos, a land conservation group that restores ranch land in Mexico adjacent to Trump's wall.
VALER CLARK: It's horrific. I mean, it's 40 years of work that I'm seeing dry up for what? As an American, I feel ashamed.
BURNETT: Construction of the border wall through the badlands of Arizona will presumably race ahead for six more weeks. Then it is President Biden's decision when and whether to shut it down.
John Burnett, NPR News, Douglas, Ariz.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARGOT LEAVITT'S "CON CALMA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.