There will soon be new work on Arizona’s border wall after a construction stoppage left behind piles of building materials, rockfall on blasted hillsides, large construction staging areas and poor drainage that led to flooding and inoperable gates.
On Tuesday Customs and Border Protection announced a proposal to clean up and repair damage from construction of border barriers in Pima, Cochise and Santa Cruz counties, and the agency is seeking public input until Feb. 3.
The announcement comes after the Department of Homeland Security said on Dec. 20 that it will address safety and environmental issues left by unfinished border wall projects across parts of the border with Mexico, with a large majority of projects located in the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector.
Although there won’t be new length added to the border wall, there could be new barriers added to fill in small gaps in the wall. Many of the gaps are there because when building the wall, two construction crews would come from opposite directions. Where the crews met, there was often a few feet of space left between the two lengths of wall.
As part of these new remediation measures, those openings could possibly be filled with a section of wall, a gate or some other type of barrier.
The proposal calls for 19 project segments along 137 miles of border, including environmentally sensitive areas in Organ Pipe National Monument, Buenos Aires and Cabeza Prieta wildlife refuges, San Pedro National Riparian Area and Coronado National Memorial. The proposal includes:
- Revegetation of disturbed areas
- Installation of small wildlife passages in the fence or wall in Organ Pipe
- Erosion control
- Installation of cattle fencing and cattle guards
- Restoration of retention ponds
- Completion of access roads and restoration or decommissioning of construction roads
- Bridge construction at the San Pedro River, Black Draw, Silver Creek and Hay Hollow
- Drainage completion or repair and stormwater pollution prevention
- Gap closure and gate installation.
Debate about filling gaps
Environmentalists and many people who live on the border say the gaps are critical for the movement of local wildlife. On the other hand, Border Patrol officials say the gaps make it difficult to monitor the border, and that it takes manpower to stop people from entering the country through the gaps, where a wall would be more effective.
In December, soon after the Biden administration announced reinstatement of the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” program, there was a short spike of migrant crossings in the Yuma Sector, west of Tucson, including many families and children, which officials said put a strain on local social services. Experts speculated those families were trying to get to the U.S. before the program would begin returning migrants to Mexico to wait for hearings in U.S. courts.
The number of times Border Patrol agents encountered migrants entering the U.S. in between ports of entry was high in 2021, with many migrants crossing more than one time since many are sent directly back to Mexico because of Title 42, a public-health policy in response to the pandemic.
The Biden administration’s focus should be on border security and filling the gaps in the wall, although the desert ecosystem is also important, says C.J. Karamargin, spokesman for Republican Gov. Doug Ducey.
“I don’t know if retention ponds and revegetation and wildlife passages are the remedy that’s needed for communities like Yuma,” he said. “What is happening in places like Yuma is a border security and humanitarian crisis, not a revegetation crisis. The gaps need to be filled.”
There are no remediation proposals for the Yuma area at this time, but gaps like the ones in Yuma exist in many spots along the Arizona border wall.
U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly also called on the administration to close some of the gaps where Border Patrol agents encounter larger groups of migrants entering the United States. He also asked for remediation efforts to address some of the landscapes most devastated by the border wall construction.
“Closing some of the gaps and installing gates will be positive steps to secure sections of the border,” Kelly, a Tucson Democrat, said in a mid-December statement. “Repairing land damaged in Cochise County, like Guadalupe Canyon, will help protect homes and ranchland from flooding and other hazards while restoring natural barriers in the landscape that support security goals.”
Conservancy organization Wildlands Network set up scores of motion-activated wildlife cameras in the San Bernardino Valley in southeastern Cochise County two years ago as part of an effort to fill the void the Trump administration left by waiving the legal requirement to show the wall’s impact on wildlife.
The organization saw wildlife moving through some of the openings in the wall, in particular in spots where there are floodgates that were opened prior to the monsoons last year, says Myles Traphagen, the borderlands program coordinator for Wildlands Network.
After the gates were opened, larger species, such as mountain lions, whitetail deer, mule deer and Gould’s turkeys, were able to use the washes, drainage ditches and streams that had been walled off the previous year when the gates were closed.
“It’s going to have a detrimental impact on wildlife if they close those gaps,” Traphagen said.
Wildlife passages “smaller than your doggie door”
DHS is working with the Interior Department and the U.S. Forest Service to assess the status and condition of the border barrier projects and determine the scope and extent of remediation work, the department said in a news release.
The government plans to prioritize projects that “address life and safety, including the protection of the public, USBP agents, and nearby communities from potential harms, and avert further environmental damage or degradation,” the news release said.
These projects will be funded by 2021 border barrier appropriations, which Congress allocated during the Trump administration but didn’t use since the Biden administration stopped the construction.
The proposal includes a lot about making sure that roads are in good condition, erosion is under control and that culverts, drainage and cattle guards are working, but there’s very little that addresses concerns for wildlife, Traphagen says.
One of the proposals is adding small wildlife passages in the wall, in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, of about 8.5 by 11 inches, an effort started by the Trump administration.
Such small openings don’t address the movement of larger animals in the region, such as Sonoran pronghorn antelope, desert bighorn sheep, the Mexican gray wolf and the jaguar.
“That’s smaller than your doggie door at PetSmart — it’s almost laughable if the situation wasn’t so tragic,” Traphagen said. “What kind of wildlife will pass through them? Nothing larger than a jackrabbit, potentially a bobcat but unlikely. So the fact that they have proposed wildlife crossings, to me, is a very disingenuous proposition and simply looks like a veneer of environmental compliance.”
Before any wildlife passages are made, DHS needs to monitor the wildlife in the region to see where the passages would be used and then the government needs to assess whether they work, he said.
Interference with water flows
Michael Bogan, a freshwater biologist and assistant professor at the University of Arizona School of Natural Resources and the Environment, agrees that the existing gaps should remain open to allow wildlife connectivity and says the gates over waterways should remain open as well.
Two major issues that need to be addressed in the remediation are erosion on the hill slopes from roads constructed for moving materials to build the wall, and the blockage of water flow across the border, Bogan says.
“Those have cascading impacts if the vegetation is removed or denuded because of erosion,” he said. “Then there’s less food for the wildlife species that are out there. That makes for more dangerous areas where they’re out in the open and predators can see them. There’s a whole lot of issues that come out of those two habitat concerns, with the wall construction.”
There’s essentially no way you can engineer a barrier that is not going to interfere with the flow of water, Bogan says. During the latest monsoon season, metal gates were torn off their hinges in Silver Creek, near the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, and debris piled up in open gateways across the San Pedro River.
“From an ecology and hydrology perspective, the only real solution is to have those water bodies completely unimpeded by a wall or by any kind of barrier,” Bogan said.
“They should use all the technology they have for detecting movement and put in sensor plates and put in those things other than a physical barrier because eventually you’re going to have a big enough rainstorm that no matter what kind of gate or bridge they put in, it’s going to get overwhelmed and it’s going to cause flooding and erosion issues.”
Bogan says there are areas of construction along the wall that are unfixable, like in Guadalupe Canyon at the Arizona border with New Mexico, or the Tinajas Altas Mountains in Yuma where mountain sides were blasted to build roads.
“There’s no amount of revegetation or fixing that will ever undo that damage,” he said. “No matter what kind of restoration they come up with, there’s going to be a lasting legacy of the construction no matter what.”
Revegetation, a difficult proposal
The proposal doesn’t contain a lot of detail on what will go into revegetating disturbed areas, other than saying areas around the wall will be reseeded in accordance with specifications provided by federal land managers.
This will include construction staging areas in the wildlife refuges and areas outside the Roosevelt Reservation, a 60-foot-wide strip of federal land that runs along much of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Revegetation in the desert is a difficult proposal because of the arid climate and ongoing drought cycles for the last 17 years or so, and perhaps more important than revegetation is a vigorous program of invasive plant control, said Traphagen, with the Wildlands Network.
Getting things to grow in this region can be difficult, but he says the true danger in not doing revegetation properly is that invasive species will colonize bare land that’s been stripped of native vegetation.
This could not only shift the native plant community and affect wildlife in myriad ways, but it could also affect ranching.
“Ranching is an important part of the economy in Arizona and the Southwest, and the native grasses have very high-quality forage, and most of them exceed the protein amounts of the exotic species such as Lehmann lovegrass and buffelgrass,” Traphagen said. “When these exotic species take hold, they displace the native species of grasses; therefore, that reduces the carrying capacity of the land for ranchers.”
Revegetation done right could be a very good thing for ranchers in the area, such as Kelly Glenn-Kimbro, whose family owns the Glenn Ranch, surrounded by the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge on three sides, and abutted with new border wall to the south.
“I think revegetation is a great idea because they left a lot of big scars,” she said. “Restoration of grasslands — that’s an amazing thing. That’s great. Ranchers are all about that.”
Lack of engagement
Glenn-Kimbro, a Republican, was against the wall because she thought it was a waste of money. Hundreds of people would cross the border through the family’s property 15 years ago, but with the installation of vehicle barriers in 2008, observation towers and more agents patrolling, she says her family saw just a few migrants a year crossing and didn’t see the need for a 30-foot wall in their backyard.
Nonetheless, they let the contractors set up a construction yard on their land and use their well, in part so as to spare the wildlife refuge. And Glenn-Kimbro says the contractors did what they could to clean up the land afterward.
What she is really upset about is the lack of engagement with stakeholders in creating the proposal, a common complaint among both environmentalists and people who live on the border. The first time Glenn-Kimbro heard about the proposal wasn’t from the Biden administration but from Kelly’s Senate office, she says.
Instead of creating a proposal and asking for feedback, the administration should put together a taskforce to ask every single rancher, farmer, landowner and small border community about what’s truly needed, she says.
“That’s the thing that I hold Biden accountable for,” Glenn-Kimbro said. “It’s all fine and dandy to stop a project, but he had no concern, no respect or nothing for the communities that had been involved with this and were still raw and open with open wounds.”
Request for comment
The Customs and Border Protection request for public comments asks the following questions:
• What immediate actions are needed to address safety issues, including protecting the public, Border Patrol agents, nearby communities and averting further environmental damage?
• What measures are the highest priority?
• Are there best practices that need to be followed in implementing the remediation measures?
The work will start in the months following the 30-day comment period, and officials estimate it will take 12 to 28 months to complete.
Comments can also be left by calling 1-800-514-0638 or by mail at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Border Patrol Headquarters, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. 6.5E Mail Stop 1039, Washington, D.C. 20229-1100.