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Investigation: Border wall construction threatens 22 Arizona archaeological sites

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Investigation: Border wall construction threatens 22 Arizona archaeological sites

  • Construction vehicles and staged panels for the border wall along a two-mile stretch of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, near Lukeville, Arizona about 110 miles southwest of Tucson, Aug. 20.
    as provided to TucsonSentinel.comConstruction vehicles and staged panels for the border wall along a two-mile stretch of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, near Lukeville, Arizona about 110 miles southwest of Tucson, Aug. 20.

The construction of the border wall in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument will threaten 22 archaeological sites, according to an internal National Park Service report. 

The 123-page report, obtained first by the Washington Post through a Freedom of Information Act request, was completed by NPS in July 2019, and describes 17 sites previously discovered by archaeologists, and well as five new sites that were discovered during a systematic review of the wildlife reserve's "unexamined southern boundary," in preparation for what the archaeologists were told was an "imminent border fence construction project." 

"Precise design plans for this expanded border infrastructure have been left to the discretion of the contractors," wrote Andrew Veech, a member of the National Park Service's Intermountain Region Archaeology Program, "and no details about the building project(s) have been furnished to the National Park Service." 

However, NPS managers were told that the project would include the entire 60-foot wide Roosevelt Reservation along the national monument's southern border, an area that includes nearly 220 acres of land, Veech wrote. "So, for planning purposes," the National Park Service regards the entire the Roosevelt Reservation as an area of "great concern, whose cultural and natural resources are imperiled." 

As first reported by, contractors last month began building new border barriers on the edge of the monument, along the U.S.-Mexico border, as the Trump administration rushes to complete more than 500 miles of projects along the border. 

Earlier this year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded two contracts worth $787 million for the replacement and extension of border fencing, including a project that will cover the entire length of the southern edge of the Organ Pipe Cactus monument. Along with 30-foot high steel panels, contractors will "undergird" the project with a 8 to 10-feet deep concrete and steel foundation. 

This is one of several projects that Trump administration officials have launched in an attempt to make good on the president's promises to build a wall along the southwestern border of the United States. 

Overall, U.S.  Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are working to spend $9.8 billion on nearly 509 miles of wall, including 141 miles of "primary" barriers, and 68 miles of replacement walls. The agency also plans to build 24 miles of levees, as well as more than 71 miles of "secondary" barriers. 

While Congress was willing to give the Trump administration $341 million for border barriers in 2017, Congress refused to appropriate more funding for border barriers, leading to a lengthy partial shutdown of the federal government. Congress agreed to an additional $1.375 billion, but President Donald Trump immediately declared an emergency resolution, and began pulling money for the the border wall by siphoning billions in funding slated for other priorities, leading to several lawsuits. 

The project will also include construction, expansion, or improvements to existing roads along the U.S. side of the border, along with the installation of lights and surveillance equipment that would likely wipe-out any archaeological find in the 60-foot wide Roosevelt Reservation, an easement that covers both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Veech wrote that resource managers were now developing plans for the "recovery of threatened archaeological resources along the park," and that while broad sections of the southern boundary have been previously surveyed "other sections still remain archaeologically unexamined." 

Over five days in late June, NPS archaeologists "systematically surveyed" about 11 miles of the monument's southern border, and discovered dozens of signs of human activity going back thousands of years that are threatened by the construction of the Trump administration's border wall.

This includes a lawsuit filed in early August by the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, and joined by the Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Defense Fund, which asked a federal court in Washington D.C. to intervene and "halt impending border wall construction at three federally protected wildland areas," including Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and the San Pedro National Conservation Area, which includes Arizona "last free-flowing river."

Despite the lawsuit, CBP began construction on Aug. 25 by installing 30-foot-high steel panels along a two-mile stretch of the border near Lukeville, Ariz., about 110 miles southwest of Tucson. 

Along with the installation of the panels, contractors bladed the entire Roosevelt Reservation. 

One site located near the Sonoyta River includes  artifacts scattered throughout, including dozens of stone artifacts, stone fragments, a "hammerstone," pieces of broken pots known as sherds, as well as shells presumably from the Gulf of California that were probably used during the Hohokam Period, between 1150 to 1400. 

As the archaeologists wrote, the site "possesses both integrity and the ability to yield important information" about the life of Native Americans before the arrival of the Spanish, and how "pre-contact trade patterns" worked between the Gulf of California and the Gila Basin, an area that now includes Tucson and Phoenix. 

While federal construction projects have to follow a series of federal laws regarding the environment and cultural artificats, the Secretary of Homeland Security can waive these rules under the 2005 Real ID Act. 

The Real ID Act, amended previous immigration statues, and granted the DHS Secretary the ability to waive any U.S. law that could block wall and barrier construction along the southern border. This includes, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act. 

It remains unclear what the effect of the report had on construction plans. 

As part of the Center for Biological Diversity's lawsuit, the real estate and environmental director for CBP's Border Wall Program Management Office, Paul Enriquez, submitted a declaration about the agency's environmental planning and consultations. In the document, Enriquez wrote that a survey completed in 2002, identified "seven cultural resources that would be potentially impacted" by proposed vehicle barriers, and he wrote that three boundary markers—concrete obelisks that mark the U.S.-Mexico border—were "relocated" during the current surveys. 

Though he detailed to the court the projects, Enriquez did not describe the July NPS report, nor its findings. 

"The International Boundary Monuments are listed," on the National Registry of Historic Places "and are considered significant," Enriquez wrote. He also noted that two other sites, Gachado Well and Line Camp were not within the "project corridor." 

He also submitted a document that said that "any known cultural resources must be clearly flagged for avoidance during construction." 

"Contact CBP to complete any necessary flagging efforts for cultural resource avoidance prior to ground disturbing activities taking place" wrote CBP officials. Officials also wrote that "if, during excavation or other construction activities, any previously unidentified or unanticipated historical, archaeological, and cultural resources are discovered or found, activities that may damage or alter such resources will be suspended."

This includes artifacts, shell, midden, bone, as well as "any indication of agricultural or other human activities."

"Upon such discovery or find, immediately notify the Contracting Officer and Border Patrol so that the appropriate authorities may be notified and a determination made as to their significance and what, if any, special disposition of the finds should be made," CBP officials wrote. 

In the document submitted to the court, CBP officials wrote that contractors should "cease all activities that may result in impact to or the destruction of these resources," and immediately secure the area. "The Government retains ownership and control over archaeological resources," they wrote. 

"CBP has received comments and data from the National Park Service and other stakeholders in relation to the Tucson sector projects. CBP has completed environmental surveys of the project area for biological, cultural, and other natural resources," said Meredith Mingledorf, a CBP spokeswoman. "Based on comments received by stakeholders and the environmental surveys conducted, CBP and USACE has developed avoidance measures and other best management practices to be implemented by the construction contractor meant to avoid or minimize impacts to biological, cultural, or natural resources within the project area."

Despite congressional recalcitrance, the Defense Department is reallocating $2.5 billion in counter-narcotics funding for 129 miles of border wall, including the replacement of "dilapidated or outdated barriers" along 129 miles of the border in both the Tucson Sector, which covers most of Arizona to the Yuma County line, and the Yuma Sector, which straddles the Colorado River. 

And, the Defense Department also agreed to pull another $3.6 billion from military construction projects to build another 175 miles of walls in "high priority" locations in five sectors along the border, including the Yuma Sector. 

Even as the project moves forward, the Defense Department authorized another $440 million last Thursday for the replacement of vehicle and pedestrian barriers in El Centro and Yuma Sectors, with an estimated completion of January 2021. The contract was given to BFBC LLC, a Montana-based company that was already given nearly $142 million for projects in El Centro and Yuma. 

At the same time, however, the agency told the court in Washington D.C. that it would not pursue three projects using Counter-Narcotics funding, known as "Section 284 projects" because the program was running out of funding.  

The statute allows the secretary of Defense to construct barriers "for the counterdrug activities or activities to counter transnational organized crime." 

However, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers discovered that there are "insufficient contract savings to undertake" the three projects, and therefore, the government has decided not to pursue two projects in Yuma Sector and one in the Tucson Sector, the government told the court. 

CBP has led the charge on the need for border walls for years under the Trump administration, but that call became louder 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 Challenged 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. 

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