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CBP to start building border barriers in Arizona wildlife refuges next week

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CBP to start building border barriers in Arizona wildlife refuges next week

Other wall projects delayed by design issues

  • Replacement of older 'landing mat' walls with the 'modern' pedestrian wall near Naco, Arizona in 2017. The plan to replace the wall near the Naco Port of Entry was authorized and funded by the Obama administration.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comReplacement of older 'landing mat' walls with the 'modern' pedestrian wall near Naco, Arizona in 2017. The plan to replace the wall near the Naco Port of Entry was authorized and funded by the Obama administration.

The Trump administration is forging ahead with plans to construct new border barriers in wildlife refuges in Southern Arizona, telling a court that one project will begin with the removal of older fencing on Monday.

Environmental groups are pursuing a lawsuit to halt the construction of new border barriers here, but officials said they'll begin removing older fencing on Monday, August 19, in preparation for new barriers in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

Last week, environmental groups led by the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity asked a federal court in Washington D.C. to "halt impending border wall construction at three federally protected wildland areas," including Organ Pipe, the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and the San Pedro National Conservation Area —which includes Arizona "last free-flowing river."

On Tuesday, lawyers for the Trump administration responded and argued that the preliminary injunction "should be denied," and submitted a declaration, written by Paul Enriquez, the director of the Border Wall Program Management Office with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. 

Enriquez's description of the projects provides some of the most filled-in details about the planned work, including a timetable of construction in Southern Arizona. Enriquez also said that the agency wants to build a "bridge" over the San Pedro River. 

In the declaration, Enriquez described three projects in the "Arizona Project Area," known as Tucson Sector Project 1, 2 and 3. 

Tucson Sector Projects 1 and 2 will begin west of Lukeville, Ariz., about 110 miles southwest of Tucson, while Tucson Sector Project 3 will include chunks of public land just southeast of Sierra Vista, as well as near the Arizona-New Mexico border.

Work on the other areas will begin after Project 2, in the Organ Pipe monument, is finished. That project is expected to take 45 days, officials said.

"The existing vehicle barrier and outmoded pedestrian barrier with the Challenged Project Areas not longer meet Border Patrol's operational needs," he wrote. "They will be replaced with new bollard wall that will be 30-feet tall and includes a linear ground detection system." 

He said that the 30-foot tall bollard barrier will include six-inch wide beams filled with concrete, and placed "in most instances," about four inches apart. 

Tucson Sector Project 2 will begin on August 19 with the removal of two miles of existing pedestrian fence, Enriquez wrote. That section will be replaced by two miles of new border wall on August 22, and the 45-day project will move "west toward Lukeville."

Enriquez's statements appear to buttress an argument made by the Center for Biological Diversity, joined by the Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Defense Fund, that "there is no current impediment to border wall construction" unless the court intervenes. 

In a 46-page document filed on August 6, the groups argued that the proposed construction, "consisting of the erection of impenetrable steel bollard walls reaching 30-feet high and several feet deep" will "result in significant, irreversible impacts to these lands," which serve as "refuges to some of the last remaining populations of endangered species whose continued existence and recovery rely on the freedom of cross-border migration." 

CBP would lead the construction efforts and the agency has repeatedly pushed for higher walls along Arizona's borders. 

This argument was often repeated last fall and during the early summer when hundreds of people — largely Central American and Mexican families seeking asylum in the U.S. — began walking across the border, often ducking under or climbing over vehicle barriers, or in some cases, digging tunnels in the soft-sand under barriers east of Yuma, Ariz. 

The Tucson Sector 262 mile-long border already maintains about 211 miles of "primary" fencing, including both modern pedestrian fencing like the barriers employed in the Nogales-area, officials have pushed hard for taller fencing across the sector's border. Similarly, while the Yuma Sector which has 107 miles of "primary" fencing along 126 miles of border, CBP continues to install newer, 30-foot tall fencing. 

In Feb., the executive secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Christina Bobb, wrote to Defense Department officials and requested their help in 11 separate projects along the U.S.-Mexico border, extending from California's El Centro Sector to the El Paso Sector in Texas. As part of this request, DHS asked the Pentagon for help in building border barriers, as well as roads, lighting systems, and ground sensors that would "alert Border Patrol agents when individuals attempt to damage, destroy, or otherwise harm the barrier." 

Just months later, in May, CBP announced it wanted to build 43.6 miles of wall along the southern border of the 330,000-acre Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a protected wilderness that has been declared an International Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations, as well as the southern edge of the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge west to the Yuma County line. 

The Trump administration's plans would effectively split Organ Pipe and Cabeza Prieta from a sister refuge, Mexico's El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve, challenging several endangered species, including the Sonoran pronghorn, desert bighorn sheep and desert tortoises.

CBP would also said it would replace 19.2 miles of fencing in southeastern Arizona, including a section along the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, a 2,369-acre refuge established to protect the wetlands of the Bernardino ciénega, a wetland that serves as a migratory corridor for wildlife moving between the mountain ranges of Mexico and the Rocky Mountains in Arizona and New Mexico. 

"Our national parklands and the imperiled animals they safeguard will be protected from Trump’s destructive wall for at least a few more weeks, but they need permanent protection," said Jean Su, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. "It’s ridiculous that it took legal action from us to get accurate information from the government about its plans to bulldoze the borderlands," she said. "But this kind of secrecy is the disturbing result of waiving dozens of environmental laws, including those requiring public notice. We’ll do everything in our power to shine a light on the government’s actions and to stop this disastrous wall."

Enriquez wrote that "no new roads" will be constructed," however, there will be "improvements to existing roads," as well as lighting and possibly cameras, and that all of the construction activity will occur in the 60-foot strip of land along the international border, that is "previously disturbed," Enriquez wrote. 

While some construction will begin within days, the agency expects the project to continue through January 2021. 

Meanwhile, the remain portions of the two projects will be delayed because "the final barrier designs are not yet complete," Enriquez said. 

"Similarly, the designs for the proposed barrier in the San Pedro Project Area have also not been finalized," he said because the agency is continuing to survey "in and around the riverbed" through "mid-to-late September," which will be a "prerequisite to finalization of the contract and designs," Enriquez wrote. The agency said that the new 0.3-mile section across the San Pedro river would include the installation of a bridge over the river beginning in October. 

"Given the remaining design work that is left to be done," the Defense Department expects to "conduct no other removal of existing barriers or construction of bollard wall in the Challenge Project Areas before October 1, 2019," he said. 

"DoD's contracts for the Challlenged Projects have an estimated completion date of January 2021," Enriquez wrote. 

Enriquez said that CBP is relying not only on "prior environmental analyses," but that the agency was working on a consultation process that include a request for public input, and the agency sent 100 separate letters to other federal agencies, as well as state, tribal and local agencies. 

On July 3, Scott Feldhausen, the district manager for the Bureau of Land Management's Gila District, responded to this request, writing in a letter to CBP that a proposed border wall across the San Pedro would be "an engineering challenge" and could affect how the river flows. 

"This extreme flow regime, coupled with the seasonal variability associated with summer monsoons, make installation of permanent, yet permeable, barrier an engineering challenge," Feldhausen wrote. 

He also wrote that plans to replace vehicle barriers with bollard walls along 20 miles of border, from the Douglas port of entry to the New Mexico state line could "cause backflow and erosion that could impact both natural resources and the border barrier itself." And, he questioned how these plans would affect five species, including the northern jaguar. "Impermeable barriers may block corridors of movement for these species," he wrote. 

Border fences planned for protected areas in Arizona

U.S. Customs and Border Protection plans to build 63 miles of new border fencing in three wildlife refuges in Southern Arizona. 

Under the "Arizona Project area," CBP plans to replace existing pedestrian fencing with a new 30-foot high fence "bollard fence" that includes concrete-filled steel poles placed approximately 4-inches apart, as well as a possible bridge over the San Pedro River. 

Tucson Sector Project 1

Will include 38.6 miles along Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Along 15.5 miles, the vehicle barrier on along Cabeza Prieta will be replaced with the new 30-foot tall wall. Another section, 23.1 miles will run along Organ Pipe Cactus and replace the vehicle barrier with the 30-foot tall wall. 

Construction in this section is expected to begin in early October, after Tucson Project 2 is completed. 

Tucson Sector Project 2

Will include 5.1 miles along Organ Pipe National Monument, and will replace "outmoded" pedestrian barriers with 30-foot high fence. This project will begin with 2-mile segment on August 19, 2019, with new panels installed August 22. Project is expected to take 45 days. 

Tucson Sector Project 3

Includes three locations, totaling 19.7 miles, including a 0.3-mile portion along the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area that will fill the "gap in existing fencing around the San Pedro River, including installation of a bridge over the river." This project will not begin until early October or "after" because the agency is still completing surveys and designs. 

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