Feds will close stretch of Coronado Nat'l Forest while Arizona pulls down shipping container wall at border
Gov. Ducey agreed to dismantle makeshift barrier made from stacked metal cargo boxes
Federal officials are closing access to a section of the Coronado National Forest where Arizona officials installed hundreds of cargo containers in a failed attempt to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
In a statement Wednesday, Starr Farrell, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service, said the agency would "implement 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."
The closure order will run through March 15 "unless conditions on the ground warrant a different closure period," Farrell said. A map attached to the closure order shows federal officials will close access to a thin strip of land about four miles long in the Sierra Vista Ranger District.
Last week, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said the state halted placing the containers and would begin removing hundreds of the 8,000-lb. steel boxes from federal lands by Jan. 4. While Ducey spent the last few months of his administration building ad-hoc border walls he retreated from this effort after federal officials filed a lawsuit against him, calling the border barriers "unlawful trespasses" that violates the U.S. Constitution.
Ducey's term as governor expires at the end of the year.
In a document filed jointly by Arizona officials and U.S. Attorney of Arizona Gary M. Restaino, last week Ducey said the state agreed "to maintain its cessation of activity" on land managed by the National Forest System in Cochise County. This includes halting the installation of hundreds of the 40-foot-long containers, as well as equipment staging, roadwork, welding of panels, and the installation of "razor" wire along the top of the barriers.
State officials also said they would "confer with representatives from the U.S. Forest Service for safety purposes and to avoid and minimize damage to the United States’ lands, properties, and natural resources."
"Protecting public welfare and ensuring a high-quality visitor experience are among the Forest Service’s highest priorities," Farrell wrote. In October, Arizona officials began what Farrell called "an unauthorized project to install numerous shipping containers in the Coronado National Forest as a barrier along the international border."
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.
Environmentalists welcomed the move as a sign that the barrier will be removed soon.
"We’re happy see real action starting to unfold that will lead to the removal of Gov. Ducey’s and AshBritt’s illegal and damaging boxcar wall," said Russ McSpadden, southwest conservation advocate at Tucson’s Center for Biological Diversity.
"But we expect the Forest Service also seek full restoration of the damage Ducey and his contractor caused to the Coronado National Forest, the watershed of the San Pedro River and this important wildlife corridor. We will be watching closely" he said.
Kate Scott, the founder of the Madrean Archipelago Wildlife Center, said she applauded the "quick action to address the public safety issues surrounding this container removal."
In a message to Dewberry, Scott said she hopes "the very-engaged, committed people who were at the border for a number of weeks to address all these illegal actions are allowed to be involved in the process."
In August, contractors began building a container wall near Yuma filling gaps left by the Trump administration's border wall construction in an attempt to stymie asylum seekers from crossing into Arizona. 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 and violating the Roosevelt Reservation— an easement owned by the federal government for more than a century—Ducey launched his new effort to containers in Cochise County.
Ducey said 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 earlier this year.
The project in Cochise County was hit with widespread criticism, and was hamstrung by a small band of residents and environmentalists who endured freezing temperatures and snow during a four week protest along the southern edge of the Coronado National Forrest.
While contractors were slated to install 10 miles of the border barrier in federally-protected land, at a cost of $123 million—including over $18 million for 2,770 containers and over $49 million in labor—protestors held them to just over 3 miles of the project, protecting a vast section of scrub oak and grasslands.
While the container wall was under construction, the Forest Service did not close access to the area. Instead, on Nov. 30, the Forest Service warned the "unauthorized" project "may be creating safety hazards."
"The Forest Service informed the State that the presence of the containers is unlawful," wrote Farrell. "Until the situation is resolved, visitors to the Coronado National Forest, including those seeking to recreate, hunt, or collect fuel-wood, should "refrain from entering the area where the State’s activities are taking place or otherwise exercise caution when traveling to the area."
Even after Ducey said the state would remove the containers, new court filings suggest the state will continue its lawsuit over the Roosevelt Reservation until Hobbs takes office on Jan. 2.
When federal officials objected to the construction citing the Roosevelt Reservation and a need for federal permits, Ducey retaliated with his own lawsuit, arguing the easement created in 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt was actually controlled by the state.
The Roosevelt Reservation covers public lands across California, Arizona, and New Mexico. However, Texas was excluded because the state's annexation and admittance as a state left the land under private control. Ironically, it was the easement that made it easier for CBP to build the border wall in Arizona, and federal officials used the reservation to defend the government from lawsuits launched by environmental groups and ranchers during the Trump administration.
In court filings Wednesday, attorneys for the state rejected a move to consolidate the two federal cases into one, arguing the fight over the 30-foot wide easement is "materially different" from the case over the governor's move to install the containers and his subsequent retreat.