After Ducey's container wall dismantled, enviro groups push for remediation on border
After state contractors dismantled the last sections of Arizona's ad-hoc border barrier in the Coronado National Forest last week, environmental groups continue to press for remediation efforts in the protected landscape.
While the last of the hundreds of containers have been removed, questions remain about how the federal government will repair damage to the protected land along a 10-mile stretch of the border in Cochise County created by contractors who carved out new roads, chopping into oak trees and setting up staging areas in the grasslands of the San Rafael Valley.
During the last few months in office, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey ordered state officials to build makeshift walls of stacked shipping containers along Arizona's border with Mexico in an attempt to stymie asylum seekers. Despite widening controversy and complaints from the federal government that the project was interfering with a plan by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to close those gaps with new barriers, Ducey launched the effort to place nearly 2,800 40-foot steel cargo boxes along a 10-mile stretch of the border at a cost of $95 million. The Biden adminstration pushed back, saying the move violated laws regarding the Roosevelt Reservation — a border easement owned by the federal government for more than a century.
While contractors attempted to complete the project, a small band of environmentalists and local residents successfully protested the construction in the Coronado Forrest, often occupying roads and staging sites to halt the construction effort, including intentionally blocking trucks. In mid-December, federal officials filed a lawsuit, asking a judge to block construction and rule the projects along the border were an "unlawful trespass" that violated the U.S. Constitution.
A week after the feds sued, Ducey sounded a retreat, telling the court that the state would halt placing the shipping containers, and begin removing those already installed on federal lands by Jan. 4.
Last week, Justice Department officials sought to keep the legal fight between Arizona and the federal government on hold.
Andrew Smith, a trial attorney with the Justice Department's Natural Resources Section, told the court the shipping containers were nearly removed and following this removal, federal officials would begin assessing the need for "remediation needs."
During the first week of January 2023, Arizona removed all the shipping containers from U.S. property in the U.S. Border Patrol Yuma Sector, he wrote. This included land controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation as part of an easement on the Cocopah Indian Tribe’s West Reservation, he said. He also told the court that the state removed shipping containers from property on National Forest System lands within the Coronado National Forest in January 2023, and those removals "are almost complete."
"The United States anticipates that these assessments will take at least 30 to 45 days to complete," Smith wrote. "Once the assessments are completed, the United States will be in a position to discuss settlement possibilities with Arizona in concrete terms," he said, adding it was likely the two sides could seek a settlement and "even obviate the need for discovery and further litigation."
"In the United States’ experience, settlement discussions of this nature may take several weeks, given the extent of the properties impacted and the varying actions that may be needed to remediate specific areas," Smith wrote.
Cost for wall surpasses $202 million
Ducey said last year that the new border barrier would "follow through on our promise to add physical barriers to the border where possible," adding that funding for the project would come from $335 million authorized by the Arizona Border Security Fund passed by the state Legislature and signed into law in early 2022.
The total cost of the projects is over $202 million, including nearly $76 million to tear down the project.
AshBritt, an emergency management contractor based in Florida was awarded the no-bid contract to build the container wall. And, later they were given a no-bid contract to remove the containers.
This makes Ducey's ad-hoc border barrier one of the most expensive project along the border. While most sections built during the last four presidential administration have ranged from about $9 million to $30 million, the Trump administration once spent nearly $46 million to build a half-mile section of 30-foot border wall near Del Rio, Texas. That section was already covered by a 2-mile section of shorter wall built in 2008 by the Bush administration.
However, with just 4.25 miles built, the temporary wall cost Arizona just more than $47 million per mile.
This includes nearly $9.3 million to tear down the Yuma section, and $57.2 million to tear down the Cochise Section, as well as costs to store the containers at two lots—one near the Yuma jail and the other near Tucson.
In a contract, the state agreed to purchase 928 containers, each 40-feet long, at a cost of $6.3 million, as well as as 512 containers, each 20-feet long, for just over $2.9 million. The state also agreed to buy 31,425 linear feet of razor wire, which was installed on top of the containers, as well as locks to hold the containers together.
And, each day during construction, the state paid AshBritt nearly $74,000 for labor and equipment to build the temporary barrier.
Ducey's administration defended the project by arguing the effort forced the Biden administration to "reverse" a decision to halt construction of permanent barriers in Arizona.
"Remember going back, the Biden administration pause to the construction of the permanent barrier," said C.J. Karamargin, Ducey's spokesman during an interview in late December. "We have said this is the reason Arizona needed to act. The Biden administration since reversed that decision, but they didn't get serious about resuming until Arizona began acting on its own."
The Biden administration had already began its process to build a small section near Yuma along the Morelos Dam. On July 29—weeks before Ducey announced his project near Yuma—the federal government said it would close gaps near the dam to protect migrants attempting to cross into the U.S., who can slip or drown walking through the Colorado River.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said he authorized completion of the project near the dam to reflect the administration’s “priority to deploy modern, effective border measures and also improving safety and security along the Southwest border."
On Oct. 20, CBP said it would begin to close gaps in the border near Yuma in early 2023 using a "combination of barriers and mechanized bollard vehicle gates" giving the agency access to the riverside of the barrier. CBP deputy director Paul Enriquez said the new barriers, running along Arizona's western barrier with Mexico would "provide improved security and reduce injury and death during crossing" and "route migrant traffic to safer locations.
This would include the closure of a 300-foot gap, a 1,350-wide gap, and two 50-foot gaps left by construction. "The project area is located on federal land that was previously disturbed by other construction activities," Enriquez wrote.
"The border situation is clearly out-of-hand," Karamargin argued. "The federal government had to act, and do more than talk about building."
After Ducey begin construction in Cochise County, an official with CBP—who was not authorized to speak on the record—called the container wall a "thoughtless exercise in politics."
"I just don't see how this is going to make a damned bit of difference," the CBP source told the Sentinel.
Karamargin defended spending nearly two-thirds of the funded slated for the border, arguing the walls "stopped" trafficking and human smuggling." However, there's little evidence Ducey's barriers worked to blunt encounters in Arizona.
In the Yuma Sector, which straddles the Colorado River, encounters rose 14.6 percent in October, compared to a year earlier. And, encounters in the Tucson Sector, which runs from the Yuma County line to the New Mexico border, increased 19.5 percent from last October to last month. Overall, apprehensions have increased 28.4 percent across the nation, with some sectors like El Paso nearly tripling the number of people taken into custody in October, compared to a year earlier.
'Itching to get out there'
Kate Scott, the founder of the Madrean Archipelago Wildlife Center, cheered the removal of the last 20 containers last week, but worried about federal remediation efforts.
Scott was part of the small group who set up a protest at "Camp Ocelot" and kept contractors from building more than about four miles of border wall. After state officials agreed to remove the containers, Scott and others—including Russ McSpadden, southwest conservation advocate at Tucson’s Center for Biological Diversity—were granted clearance to observe the removals and begin assessing damage to the remote wilderness.
However, on Dec. 28, the U.S. Forest Service implemented a "temporary area closure," for public lands near Copper Canyon, near the border barrier beginning on Jan. 3, 2023 to "protect public health and safety during removal operations." This will last until March 15, and violating a closure order is a class B misdemeanor and could include a fine of up to $5,000 for individuals and $10,000 for organizations, warned Kerwin S. Dewberry, the forest supervisor for the Coronado National Forest.
Scott complained that just after a "volunteer service agreement" was printed and volunteers were on-site, "we were deemed illegal, unauthorized and threatened" with arrest.
"Being used to harassment and intimidation during the weeks of protest against Ducey’s illegal seizure of public lands and construction of container wall, to be met by a Forest Service law enforcement officer and told the agreement was invalid and that we were illegal was chilling," said Scott. She noted during the observation period, volunteers spotted new damage to the protected landscape and said there was "zero visibility of the container removal work."
Scott had a dim view of some of AshBritt's contractors, noting in earlier interviews they threatened at least two volunteers and once called the Cochise County Sheriff's Office and claimed volunteers were crawling on their vehicles. Nearby residents also complained AshBritt contractors, driving with trucks laden with the 8,000-lb containers regularly raced along rural roads. On Jan. 9, a truck carrying a cargo container smashed into a Dodge truck near the Elgin Bridge, reported the Patagonia Regional Times.
"Now no one knows what is happening to our land, water and wildlife. AshBritt continues its container wall de-construction with zero oversight," she said in January. She said there was more damage after volunteers were "booted out."
"That was the whole point and watch them and keep them on a somewhat best-practices," she said. "I'm not sure when they'll let us back in, but we're really itching to get out there and look at it without the containers and make an assessment."
During the protest, contractors for AshBritt Scott said, and on Jan. 9,
"First things first, take a moment and celebrate," said McSpadden. "We need to do a big cheer after hearing the last container was pulled off the line there."
"I hope this is precedent setting, but really this is a unique situation, outside of the normal operations of the feds," he said, adding the case was an "odd-ball" because state contractors attempted to build a wall on federal land.
Overall, CBP has about 701 miles of "primary barriers" and around 70 miles of "secondary" fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. Before the Trump administration, there was about 197 miles of pedestrian fencing, and 16 miles of secondary fencing, and the agency added about 450 miles of border barriers at a cost of at least $15 billion. This included money pulled from the DHS and the Department of Defense, including money from a U.S. Treasury fund fueled by drug seizures.
However, even with billions in spending and hundreds of miles of new fencing, state Republicans demanded additional barriers to stymie asylum seekers and claimed the border is "wide-open and unprotected."
When Ducey announced he would build the container wall in Cochise County, he argued the border is "a patchwork of federal, state, tribal and private lands."
McSpadden noted at Camp Ocelot, around 100-150 people cycled through, part of what could be a "a pretty powerful network we hope to maintain and build upon to deal with issues on the border in southern Arizona."
"So we can build upon this victory," he said. He said after the permit was pulled for volunteers, it was clear contractors created more "lollipop and spur roads," and there were more cases of damage. "Compounded with stuff like blading the forest and destroying the grasslands and hundreds of trees, there will be some pretty hefty restoration work."
He added the group, formed from the vestiges of Camp Ocelot would seek to make sure the federal government works to restore the land, and considers suing AshBritt and even former governor Ducey for damages.
"I want to see that land restored to what it was before, before AshBritt ripped that to shreds," he said. "They tried to build this 10-mile wall and got almost four miles and threatened to leave it there unless there's a replacement going in."
"I can't think of something since the Berlin Wall where a border wall was removed," McSpadden said. "It's a major defeat against wall-builders, a remarkable and historic moment. We said no, and that's pretty incredible."