The environmental consequences of Gov. Ducey’s rogue ‘border wall’

Slicing across Arizona’s Coronado National Forest, the barrier will stop more migrating mammals than humans.

In early November, I stood in the shade of Arizona’s unauthorized “border wall,” a crude line of over 200 8,000-pound shipping containers. I watched a grasshopper on the dirt access road springing up, trying repeatedly to clear the new, mysterious barrier. As hard as it tried, it could not fly high enough. The scene reminded me of a sad Pixar short, except that there was no happy ending or even a narrative arc. The grasshopper was simply stuck — confused.


At the directive of Arizona’s Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, a Florida-based disaster response company, AshBritt, began staging shipping containers in October in the Coronado National Forest, part of the U.S. Forest Service system. The project, which is still in progress, does not have the approval of the federal government. While Ducey intended it to be a display of defiance against the Biden administration, the wall is underwhelming: the containers are in poor condition, and the lack of government oversight makes the scene feel farcical. Still, as the perplexed insect attested, it has significant environmental consequences for one of the world’s most unique ecosystems.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, also a Republican, first built a wall out of containers in Eagle Pass, Texas, in 2021. Ducey copied his strategy in August 2022, ordering the construction of 3,800 feet of double-stacked shipping containers to fill a gap in the federally constructed border wall near Yuma, Arizona. When Ducey announced the effort, he argued that “the Biden administration’s lack of urgency on border security is a dereliction of duty,” and that Arizona “can’t wait any longer.” Sections of that container wall tipped over within a week of it being put up. And when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation sent Ducey a letter stating that the hasty border wall violated federal law and calling for the removal of the containers, Ducey responded by suing the federal government, citing an “unprecedented crisis” of “countless migrants.”

Russ McSpadden/Center for Biological Diversity

At the Coronado National Forest, however, there were no migrants in sight. Getting to the construction site entailed driving on dirt U.S. Forest Service roads through a mountainous savannah-like landscape of oak trees and native grasses. From the overlook at the trailhead of the Coronado Peak Trail, the new wall appeared as a dark line through the landscape, trailing off into a cloud of dust. To the south, Mexico was clearly visible. Across the border is the Nature Conservancy’s Rancho Los Fresnos open space reserve; the closest large town is the country’s Cananea, Sonora, 24 miles as the crow flies.

Along the dirt road approaching the construction site, AshBritt has stationed several empty white pickup trucks. When I noticed them, I thought they were Border Patrol vehicles. Then I realized that was probably the point of them—and that the most striking thing about the container wall’s construction site was that, unlike almost anywhere else in the Borderlands, there was no law enforcement in sight. At the entrance to the staging area, construction workers in yellow vests played gatekeeper, but they couldn’t deny passage on a public road on public land.

On a large, cleared area to the west of the road, trucks and other heavy machinery built the wall as if on an assembly line. A forklift hoisted a shipping container onto a flatbed trailer pulled by a heavy equipment truck tractor that, according to one of the on-site construction workers, was purchased at a military auction. The truck tractor then drove the container to the end of the wall, and came back for another, stirring up dust along the way.

Russ McSpadden/Center for Biological Diversity

Up close, the containers themselves are dented, scratched and rusty. A mess of overlapping spray-painted warnings and chalk identification numbers suggested they’d had a long life. And from the white stickers on some of them that said “repo,” it seemed they had neared the end of it. Another construction worker was driving along the wall, welding pieces of metal to fill the spaces between the containers. Some gaps were very large because of the area’s uneven terrain. The pieces of metal were thin, and the welds just “tacks,” temporary connections to hold a piece of metal in place rather than fully join it to another.

The uneven terrain creates gaps between the containers which are then covered with pieces of metal.
Russ McSpadden/Center for Biological Diversity

Despite the wall’s slapdash construction, it poses a major threat to the region’s unique environment. The Coronado’s public lands are part of the Sky Islands region, a unique network of mountain ranges that rise up from the Sonoran Desert and whose ecosystems change dramatically as their elevation increases. The area is critical habitat for jaguar, according to Myles Traphagen, Borderlands Program Coordinator at the Wildlands Network, and ocelot have been documented nearby. “It couldn’t be a worse location,” he said in a phone call after my visit.

The containers impede wildlife crossings more than the federal wall, which has four-inch spaces between its “bollards,” or posts. Ironically, however, the containers would be much easier for humans to climb than the bollard fence, if they attempted it. “[Containers are] designed with gripping points and handles,” said Traphagen.

The container wall is more of a barrier to wildlife crossings than the bollard wall installed elsewhere along the U.S.-Mexico border, through which small animals can still pass.
Russ McSpadden/Center for Biological Diversity

But as Emily Burns of the Sky Island Network — which operates a network of cameras that document wildlife across the U.S.-Mexico border — said in an interview with the Border Chronicle, the stretch of the Coronado where the container wall is being built is one where there is very little human traffic. As High Country News previously reported, that’s partially due to the area’s network of surveillance towers.

Driving away, the sound of the cranes and forklifts moving the containers faded away. The landscape became picturesque and quiet again. Some may consider the border through the Coronado National Monument to be an open one. But for the ecosystem and its animals, that openness is critical: the landscape depends on expansive spaces for its unique connectivity and biodiversity.

Russ McSpadden/Center for Biological Diversity

Note: This story has been updated to correct that AshBritt is staging shipping containers on public land in the Coronado National Forest, part of the U.S. Forest Service system, and not at the Coronado National Memorial, which is part of the national park service.

Caroline Tracey is the Climate Justice Fellow at
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