Triumph and tragedy: Trump’s border wall expands

Anger and despair rise as new projects are announced in the Southwest.

In the desert grasslands along the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, amid the muted greens of spindly ocotillos and creosote bush, construction workers are digging trenches, widening roads, pumping groundwater and pouring deep concrete bases. Their work is part of the construction of a 30-foot-high border wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

This portion of the wall in southeastern Arizona is just one of the 18 sections announced in 2019. Trump’s long-promised wall has finally evolved from campaign rhetoric to reality. And for the past year, environmental groups and border communities have fought it, filing lawsuits that challenge its funding sources, organizing protests in cities and at national monuments, and testifying in emotional hearings before lawmakers in D.C. But so far, their efforts have failed to stop construction.


Meanwhile, border residents — members of the Tohono O’odham Nation as well as local ranchers and environmentalists — have grown increasingly angry and demoralized as it becomes clearer that the administration is determined to build as much of the wall as possible before Election Day.

On Feb. 13, another 31 new border projects were announced, signifying the planned construction of 177 miles of wall in areas previously thought to be too rugged or isolated. Much of it will replace old pedestrian fencing and vehicle barriers, though other projects will break new ground.

Once completed, for the first time in U.S. history, the barrier will physically wall off the majority of New Mexico, Arizona and California, an area stretching from the Rio Grande to the Pacific Ocean. What once seemed like a pipe dream has become as concrete as the barrier itself. A triumph for the Trump administration, it’s regarded as a tragedy for the border communities that call the region home, as well as the more than 93 endangered and threatened species that live in this desert.

Map compiled by Myles Traphagen

THE PELONCILLO MOUNTAINS, a range in southern Arizona, serve as a bridge between the Sierra Madre Occidental Range in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains. Wildlife species, including ocelots, pronghorn, black bear, Gould’s turkey and the white-nosed coati, roam the area, according to the Sky Island Alliance, a regional conservation nonprofit. It was designated critical habitat for jaguars in 2014; one was famously photographed by a local rancher in 1996, and is believed to have traveled here from Sonora, Mexico.

When the first set of border projects was announced in 2019, this region was spared. But the new round of construction will cut across critical habitat, including a migratory corridor that jaguars use to move between the United States and a breeding population in Sonora, Mexico, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit conservation organization.

From his office in Las Cruces, New Mexico, Kevin Bixby of the Southwest Environmental Center told me, “It was heartbreaking to see those (new) projects announced.” In some places, including New Mexico’s Bootheel region in the southwestern corner of the state, pedestrian fences will replace vehicle barriers, which wildlife can easily cross over and under. This will destroy important habitat range for species like the Mexican gray wolf. As Bixby put it, “Individual animals can no longer move freely across the landscape to get to the food and the water and the mates that they need to survive.”

The new wall projects will also separate the threatened white-sided jackrabbit in the U.S. from a neighboring population in Mexico. “The one valley (the jackrabbit) can migrate through will have a double wall,” said Myles Traphagen, Borderlands coordinator for the nonprofit Wildlands Network. When populations are separated arbitrarily, individuals are likely to become more vulnerable to disease and natural disasters, while a lack of mates can result in harmful inbreeding.

“Individual animals can no longer move freely across the landscape to get to the food and the water and the mates that they need to survive.”

As the wall rises in places like Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and soon, in Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, experts fear that endangered species like the Sonoran pronghorn will face extinction. Though a successful recovery effort was led by both countries, fewer than 1,000 pronghorn are currently thought to live in the region. Carlos Castillo, a Wildlands Network conservation specialist based in Hermosillo, Mexico, said the barrier will make it difficult for the animals to access the large territory they need to survive and reproduce.

Today, this section of the Borderlands is protected in both nations through a sister-park partnership, which connects Organ Pipe and Cabeza Prieta in the U.S. with Mexico’s El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO world heritage site. Castillo, who formerly directed El Pinacate, says the wall could jeopardize his life’s work. “It’s a great sadness because it is a special place for so many reasons,” he told me. “I started my professional career working to protect the Sonoran pronghorn, helping to protect the area through the sister-park initiative in Arizona.” Now he says, the wall “will practically close shut all of the Sonoran Desert.”

An activist from the Hia-Ced O’odham and the Tohono O’odham nations sits with a friend by Quitobaquito Springs in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona.

THE TOHONO O’ODHAM NATION, whose land reaches into both the U.S. and Mexico, is particularly concerned over how construction is disturbing many important archaeological and cultural sites. At a Feb. 26 hearing with the House Committee on Natural Resources, Tohono O’odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris Jr. testified that his tribe is worried about a burial ground at Monument Hill in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which it fears was desecrated by construction-related blasting. Other sites are in danger, including ceremonial grounds for the Hia-Ced O’odham Tribe in neighboring Cabeza Prieta, Quitobaquito Springs, and a burial site in the proposed path of the border wall. The Tohono O’odham suggested alternatives to preserve those specific areas, but Norris said the tribe’s input was ignored.

In response, Scott Cameron, the Interior Department’s principal deputy assistant secretary for policy, management and budget, assured the committee members that an environmental monitor has been on site to assess whether blasting or construction need to be halted, if and when cultural resources are at risk.

As part of the recently announced slate of projects, a new section of the wall is now set to go up directly east of the Tohono O’odham Reservation. This would leave the reservation sandwiched between barriers on either side of the Southwest border.

The Cocopah Indian Tribe, whose nation also extends across the border, has remained neutral on border policy issues. In an email statement, however, the tribe told HCN that it is concerned that a portion of the new wall could limit members’ access to a “culturally significant site.”

As construction is rammed through, border communities are left to cope with the long-term impacts the wall will have on cultural resources, wildlife and the ecology of the region. Construction has proceeded apace without legally mandated environmental reviews. Advocates are left scrambling to compile data and set up new wildlife cameras to track migrating animals while they can still cross the border.

“We want those studies to identify which areas we should rip the walls out first.”

“(We are) racing to get some baseline information,” Laiken Jordahl of the Center for Biological Diversity told me. “One of the first things we are demanding when Trump is out of office is a comprehensive study of how border walls have affected wildlife, affected water and the landscape. We want those studies to identify which areas we should rip the walls out first.”   

Border wall construction in San Bernardino Valley, Arizona.
Myles Traphagen

Jessica Kutz is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor