Bookmark and Share

Border barrier cost $48M per mile

DANYELLE KHMARA

Arizona Daily Star

Former Gov. Doug Ducey's shipping crate border barrier is turning into the most expensive barrier built on Arizona's U.S.-Mexico border, as crews quickly work to remove it.

Ducey, who left office at the end of 2022, spent taxpayer money toward the end of his term to build unauthorized border barriers on federal land in both Yuma and Cochise counties. He said he did so due to an increase of migrants coming into the country, among other reasons.

The entire project cost, including building and tearing down barriers in both counties, as well as transportation and storage, has reached about $202 million, according to state contracts. Nearly 4.25 miles were built in total.

It breaks down to about $48 million per mile — more expensive than any section of steel-bollard border wall built in Arizona under former President Donald Trump.

Border wall in Arizona built by the Trump administration ranged in cost from about $9 million a mile to $30 million a mile near Sasabe and Nogales, according to data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The state's temporary shipping

WATCH: To see a video of the containers being removed earlier this month, point your smartphone camera at the QR code, then tap the link.

crate barriers were paid for out of a $335 million fund the Republican- controlled Arizona Legislature allocated in the state budget for a border barrier.

In a legal battle between the state and U.S. governments over the projects, the feds said Arizona was trespassing by placing the crates, but state officials claimed the land was in fact not federal land. Arizona and the federal government eventually agreed the state would remove all the shipping containers.

Emergency management contractor AshBritt already removed the containers from the Yuma border area and is removing them from Coronado National Forest land in Cochise County.

As of noon Friday, they had removed more than half the shipping crate barrier, with about 1.25 miles left to go, said environmentalist Myles Traphagen, Wildlands Network's borderlands program coordinator. At this rate, they could be done by Jan. 27, he said.

Land remediation will add to costs

Environmentalists worry about continued damage on protected land in Arizona as crews remove the crates.

The Yuma and Cochise projects are very different because the Yuma barrier was less than a mile long and connected to an existing border wall in a more developed area where the U.S. government already planned to fill gaps in the barrier. That project is scheduled to begin now and possibly finish by summer.

In contrast, the project in Cochise County was originally intended to be 10 miles long, heading west from Montezuma Pass towards the Santa Cruz River. A small group of protestors stopped construction when about 3.5 miles had been built.

Unlike the agricultural landscape in Yuma, the Cochise project was on U.S. Forest Service land in protected oak woodland, said Emily Burns, program director with the conservation group Sky Island Alliance.

The federal government had already planned to do restoration in Coronado forest, where there were some federal border wall projects built under Trump.

How much additional restoration will be needed due to the environmental damage of Ducey's project is still unclear, as well as who will pay for that restoration — the federal government or the state.

'We don't yet know the damages and the restoration need and what those costs will be, so that's a big question mark,' Burns said during a webinar on the shipping crate project and its effects on wildlife.

The agreement that the state would remove all the shipping containers only dealt with the removal, not restoration, said Dinah Bear, a legal expert with a focus on the borderlands.

The federal government's priority was to order removal of the shipping containers, but a lawsuit is also asking the state to pay for the remediation efforts and damages, which has yet to be resolved, Bear said during the we binar Thursday.

'I don't think much is going to happen in terms of remediation until the state and the federal government work out the legal issues presumably in a settlement,' she said.

The U.S. Forest Service, which manages the land, said anything under current litigation is handled by the Department of Justice. DOJ did not immediately respond to a question of who will be responsible for remediation.

Environmentalists monitor damage

Prior to Arizona's shipping container project, the federal government already had remediation plans for the Coronado, adjacent to areas where a border wall was built under Trump.

The remediation plan 'did include dealing with some of the original federal construction staging areas that do overlap with this,' Burns said. 'So that'll be interesting to see how that factors in.'

Some of the recent damages in the Coronado that conservation groups are already documenting include construction crews significantly widening the road that runs parallel with the border, creating many new pullouts and parking areas for the construction equipment and pushing soil into new areas. Dozens of oak trees were bulldozed or cut down during the course of the road widening and the barrier acted as a dam during recent rains, causing deep muddy pools to form.

'One of the biggest shocks of all of this was just how much habitat disturbance happened during the installation,' Burns said. '... The same crews that did the initial wall installation and initial habitat destruction are now taking the containers out as fast as they can. So we are concerned that the status of the forest prior to the wall coming down might be in worse condition when we eventually go back into the area.'

Sky Island Alliance set up dozens of cameras on the border in March 2020 and began documenting changes in wildlife movement as federal border barrier construction took place in the Huachuca and Patagonia mountains. Last summer, it expanded the project with an array of cameras in the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge.

In recent months, its cameras in the Coronado caught many videos and images of wildlife reacting to the shipping crate barrier. At first animals were repelled by the construction activity but then wildlife became more bold and started coming down to the shipping container wall, Burns said.

Their cameras caught videos of coyotes, javelina, deer, ringtail, a gray fox and a mountain lion walking alongside and sometimes finding ways around the barrier. There are videos of javelina that eventually found a gap in the crates after a few weeks and were using it to cross back and forth between Arizona and Sonora, Burns said.

'So for us this really emphasizes the fact that this is real habitat change,' she said. 'This is a true and significant barrier. Even with the gaps that were in there between them, it does change the dynamics of where animals are moving.'

Sky Islands Alliance is continuing to monitor wildlife on the border and is expanding its border cameras project.

On Monday, the nonprofit is placing about five cameras along the border wall and floodgates by the San Pedro River to better understand which wildlife species are approaching the border and where they go when they encounter the wall, Burns said. By the summer, when the flood gates open for monsoon season, they'll have a first sense of which species are most affected by the wall barrier there.

The Forest Service issued a temporary closure order in the area of the shipping crates 'to protect public health and safety during the removal by the State of Arizona of unauthorized shipping containers and related equipment,' blocking the public and environmental groups from using the area or documenting any further damage.

Once the area reopens, Sky Islands is going to take stock of what actually happened environmentally with the landscape, the water crossings, the oak trees and other vegetation, and the wildlife habitat and then work 'collaboratively with the Forest Service and other partners in the area to do everything we can to bring the ecological integrity back to this beautiful landscape,' Burns said.

Contact reporter Danyelle Khmara at dkhmara@tucson.com or 573-4223. On Twitter: @DanyelleKhmara

Bookmark and Share