Not even a beetle can cross the US-Mexico border through Gov. Doug Ducey’s barrier on protected public land — the only animals able to cross now are humans who manage to climb over the crates, conservationists say.
“Ducey’s shabby parody of the Berlin Wall would be ridiculous if it weren’t so damn damaging to wildlife,” said Russ McSpadden, Southwest conservationist at the Center for Biological Diversity.
Arizona continues to build the border barrier on state lands without following federal or other regulations.
When asked if the state had undergone any permitting process or was complying with any environmental regulations, Ducey’s spokesman, CJ Karamargin, said simply “no.”
“Reg. Ducey has no intention of stopping or slowing down the mission to close gaps in the border barrier,” he said.
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The state began installing what is expected to be about 3,000 shipping containers at the U.S.-Mexico border in the Coronado National Forest in October at an estimated cost of about $95 million, despite a standoff with the U.S. government over installing border barriers on state lands in Arizona without permission. The Republican governor has gone to court to challenge the federal government’s jurisdiction over part of the country.
As of Nov. 20, emergency management company AshBritt had installed more than 300 rows of double-stacked shipping boxes more than two miles long for the state.
The state’s goal is to fill the gaps that arose when President Joe Biden called for a halt to the construction of the border wall, says Karamargin.
“The goal of the state from the beginning was to make illegal entry into the United States more difficult,” he said. And according to Yuma Mayor Douglas Nicholls, Yuma Legislators and Yuma County Sheriff Leon Wilmot, “That goal is being achieved. We expect it will have the same effect in Cochise County.”
The number of encounters with migrants in Yuma rose about 5% to nearly 25,500 in the month after Ducey placed the shipping boxes and remained steady in October.
Though the number of undocumented migrants entering the country in Yuma is increasing, local and federal government officials in the region have said a barrier gives them more order in processing people.
“Fast and random”
The state previously contracted AshBritt to spend over 11 days setting up 3,800-foot shipping crates in Yuma, including near the Morelos Dam, where many undocumented migrants have entered Arizona over the past year.
The bollard barrier built by the federal government during the Trump administration had four-inch gaps between posts. While this halted connectivity and migration for larger mammals, conservationists say, small animals could still move through them. That’s not the case with Arizona’s new barrier.
“We’ve now lost connectivity for insects and reptiles,” McSpadden said. “Snakes and lizards down to the smallest beetle where they prop up these containers just can’t get through. Only humans can get over it.”
McSpadden has documented border wall construction throughout the Trump administration and says he’s never seen construction like the Coronado in Cochise County, a region he describes as “one of the best grasslands in Arizona” and the Madrean Oak Forest.
“It’s just very quick and random,” he said. “They don’t really follow any safety protocols. There are no sprayers out there to hold down the dirt. They only fill the air with fine dust. It’s just a crazy construction site scene. … You have no legal authority to do any of this.”
Contractor AshBritt did not respond to a request for comment on what protocols, if any, they were following.
In a Nov. 22 federal court filing a standoff between the state and federal government over the shipping crate barrier, McSpadden stated that the work crews:
- many oak trees bulldozed and destroyed;
- built by a series of desert streams;
- leveled turning points in the forest;
- gradation and expansion of the size of the border wall road;
- cleared a staging area they created, leaving a great bare expanse of soft dust that lifts with every gust of wind;
- left trees damaged and destroyed in great heaps;
- began construction of new roads along the border where the existing road was moving away from the border due to contours in land and complicated geological issues to try to continue installing shipping containers;
- and recently created a new staging area full of heavy machinery, toilet facilities and shipping containers near the border in grassland and forest.
Ducey says the US can’t stop him
The Coronado is US Forest Service land and the state has no legal authority to build on it. That being said, there’s a 60-foot strip of state land that runs along most of the Arizona-Mexico border called the Roosevelt Reservation, meaning Arizona doesn’t have permission to build almost anywhere on the border.
President Theodore Roosevelt created the Roosevelt Reservation in 1907, which also extends along most of the border in California and New Mexico, to keep that country “clear of obstacles as a safeguard against smuggling of goods between the United States and Mexico.”
The state standoff began when federal officials asked the state to remove the Yuma containers, citing “unlawful placement” on state property and on the lands of the Cocopah Indian tribe.
Additionally, Coronado Forest Supervisor Kerwin Dewberry sent a letter to the state saying he must obtain prior approval through the federal regulatory approval process that governs national forest lands before he could erect any barriers in the Coronado, which the state have not done.
In response to the government’s request, the state filed a lawsuit against federal agencies, stating, among other things, that Roosevelt had no legal right to declare all land along the border federal property.
A state complaint in the case also says that a surge in undocumented migrants at the border “has strained domestic resources, which is felt most by border communities.” Federal law enforcement along the Arizona border encountered migrants 571,720 times in fiscal year 2022, according to federal data, an 83% increase from the previous year, though not the record for the state.
While the Yuma sector saw a record number of arrests in 2022, border patrol in the Tucson sector and the US-Mexico border overall had higher arrest numbers for several years previously, with the highest for the state being more than 725,000 arrests the year 2000.
Besides the question of who has jurisdiction over Arizona’s southern border, Ducey’s other legal argument is that the state has the constitutional authority to protect Arizona’s borders.
The Biodiversity Center moved to join the lawsuit as a defendant, alleging the construction was illegal because Ducey failed to complete the required environmental assessments.
In response, the state argues that the center should not be allowed to join because if Ducey wins his argument, then the property on which the containers will be placed was never federal land at all and therefore no federal environmental laws were violated.
But at least as far as the Coronado is concerned, the land beyond the Roosevelt reservation is US Forest Service land and therefore still subject to federal regulations. Other environmental protections that the state does not consider also apply, such as those enforced by the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
The Center for Biological Diversity filed counterargument to be included as a defendant in the lawsuit on Nov. 22, saying Ducey’s lawsuit was politically motivated and made “extraordinary claims of state control and authority over the federal border areas between Arizona and Mexico.” .
Given the speed of construction of the barrier in the Coronado, the state will likely be finished before the governorship switches to Katie Hobbs, a Democrat who has been critical of the barrier.
“As governor, my number one priority will be the safety of Arizonans,” Hobbs said in a statement. “That means real solutions to our border crisis — including increasing resources for our sheriffs and law enforcement, stepping up surveillance and pressuring our federal government to give us the tools we need. Arizonans don’t need more political stunts—they need results.”