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Interior Dep't transferring 560 acres of public land to U.S. Army for border barriers

Transfer includes 230 acres along Cabeza Prieta refuge

The Interior Department announced it will transfer 560 acres of public land to the U.S. Army, including nearly 230 acres along the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, for the construction of 70 miles of border wall, officials said Wednesday. 

The order temporarily transfers sections of land near San Diego, El Paso, and Yuma to the Army for three years for "border security purposes," the agency announced

The first, called Yuma 3, transfers 228 acres of public land along the southern edge of the 860,000-acre Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge to the Army for a "pedestrian barrier," while the second called Yuma 6, transfers about 73 acres for the construction of "primary and secondary barriers." 

"I’ve personally visited the sites that we are transferring to the Army, and there is no question that we have a crisis at our southern border,” Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said. "Absent this action, national security and natural resource values will be lost. The impacts of this crisis are vast and must be aggressively addressed with extraordinary measures." 

This year, the number of people taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol agents spiked to 144,000 people along the southwestern border, though about 71 percent were either families traveling with children, or children traveling without parents or guardians, most of them Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States. 

Many of these people traveled in large groups, and went to vehicle barriers, or what Border Patrol agents called "legacy fencing," and crossed into the United States before flagging down agents and surrendering themselves. In May, about nearly 11,000 people traveling as families turned themselves over to agents in the Yuma Sector. In August, the number of people taken into custody had declined to 1,239 people in the sector, following the nationwide decline. 

"We made it a priority to work closely with the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense, to protect the wildlife, natural, and cultural resources that occur on these federal lands along the border. This work will provide the necessary tools to enhance the safety of those that live, work and recreate in this region,” said Casey Hammond, acting assistant secretary for Land and Minerals Management. "Through this collaboration we will maximize safety and stewardship, benefitting all Americans in response to this crisis." 

Bernhardt wrote that in additional to "national security concerns, this act also responds to environmental issues caused by unlawful border crossings.  

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"Wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, as well as species and vegetation are adversely impacted by land degradation and destruction caused by the creation of trails, the deposition of trash, and unlawful fires, among other things," he said. "Construction of border barriers will reduce or eliminate these impacts and preserve values that will otherwise be lost."

Interior Department officials argued that transfer will not interfere with national parks or segments of Native American land. However, environmental groups have noted that the construction of border barriers along the 860,000-acre Cabeza Prieta refuge would effectively severe the land 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.

And, archaeologists with the National Park Service finalized a report in July that said construction of the border wall along the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument—which runs just east and south of Cabeza Prieta—would threaten 22 archaeological sites. 

"Trump continues to completely disregard our system of checks and balances, critical environmental laws and protections for communities to build his destructive, deeply unpopular wall," said Dan Millis, Borderlands Program Manager at the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter based in Tucson.  "Illegally transferring billions of dollars from the military and now handing over our public lands for more border militarization is an abuse of power—one that will have ripple effects and ruinous harm long after his presidency."

"It is time for the courts to immediately reject Trump’s fake national emergency that is destroying our homes, public lands, archaeological sites and communities," Millis said. 

The transfer announced Wednesday will include El Paso 2, a project in New Mexico's Luna and Hidalgo counties that will transfer 170 acres to replace existing vehicle barriers, and El Paso 8, 43 acres of land in Hidalgo county for new primary and secondary pedestrian barriers. 

And, in San Diego, nearly 44 acres in San Diego County will be given up for new "primary bollard fence" and secondary pedestrian barriers.

The projects rely on the president's emergency declaration, made in February after Congress refused to authorize more funding for border barriers, and the White House moved to begin siphoning money from the Defense Department, including nearly $3.6 billion that was originally slated for around 125 military construction projects, including a $30 million project at Arizona's Ft. Huachuca. 

Environmental groups have challenged the transfer of the Pentagon's funding, and the construction of border barriers along public lands, and one lawsuit launched by the Sierra Club, American Civil Liberties Union, and Southern Border Communities Coalition will get a hearing in the 9th Circuit Court in San Francisco on November 18. 

In July, the Supreme Court dismissed the 9th Circuit's ruling that the groups could seek review of the Defense Secretary's actions, but they did not rule on whether the government could use Pentagon funding to build border barriers. However, the decision dismantled an injunction put in place by a federal judge in California that blocked the White House from "reprogramming" funding from the Defense Department to Homeland Security to build border barriers. 

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Another lawsuit, launched by the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups is moving forward in a court in Washington D.C., after the groups asked the court 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. 

As first reported by TucsonSentinel.com, 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. Contractors began with a project in the Organ Pipe Cactus monument installing 30-foot high steel panels that contractors will "undergird" 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. 

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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.

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