The first mile of the Arizona Trail (AZT), the much loved and well-trodden 800-mile path from Mexico to Utah, was closed in July 2020 when Border Wall construction began within the Coronado National Memorial at the Eastern edge of the San Rafael Valley. In that first mile of the Trail, starting at the Mexican border, hikers gain several hundred feet to the parking lot at Montezuma Pass. This first mile sets the stage for Passage 1’s ascent from 6,575 feet to 9,456 feet at Miller Peak, one of the most dramatic climbs of the entire trail.
During the Trump Era, the 30-foot “tall wall” picked up at the west end of the 18-foot wall previously built across the San Pedro River Valley and had started up the steep slope in the Coronado Memorial when construction was paused by incoming President Biden’s ‘stop-work order’ of January 20, 2021. The tall-wall construction within the Memorial had also included a freestanding stretch of about 420 feet going west from Boundary Marker 102, the exact starting point of the AZT. Going further west across the San Rafael Valley to the Patagonia Mountains, no tall walls have been built. The valley border remains as the same six- or seven-strand barbed wire and RR-rail “vehicle barrier” it’s been for about 50 years.
In April 2021, NBC reported on the environmental legacy of the wall’s construction in an article titled “Why the Environmental Crisis Sparked by Trump’s Border Wall May Be Irreparable.” Nationally, opposition to the border wall on ecological grounds has been coming continuously from scientists and activists since President Trump’s initiation
of the project in 2017. Sources of resistance included The Center for Biological Diversity, National Geographic, and articles in the journal ‘Bioscience.’ One ‘Bioscience’ article published in 2018, included ecologists Paul Ehrlich and E O Wilson, and was titled “Nature Divided, Scientists United: US-Mexico Border Wall Threatens Biodiversity and Binational Conservation.” Jennifer Miller, one of the authors of the article, wrote “This would be the only wall on earth that would split a continent.” Besides Miller’s co-authors, the report had been signed onto by 2,700 other scientists from 50 countries, but it did not modify or stop the wall. It took replacing the President to accomplish that, resulting in a shift to remediation of damage done, with at least Arizona details now being worked out.
The first mile was reopened on Jan 1, 2022. On January 4, the Customs and Border Protection agency (CPB) posted an Arizona Border Barrier Remediation Plan for Pima, Cochise, and Santa Cruz Counties, with a request for citizen comment by February 3. The remediation work is likely to take 12-18 months and may result in re-closure of AZT’s first mile.
Among the southern Arizona groups commenting on the Federal Remediation Plan, Tucson-based Sky Island Alliance helped citizens comment via an online workshop, with possible comments, created by Wildlands Network, a national group working against extinction by strengthening the conservation of wildlife corridors and habitat. In its local work, Sky Island Alliance is informed by years of study and advocacy in the Arizona Borderlands including maintaining a wildlife cam program that’s identified 106 species along the border.
Patagonia’s Borderlands Restoration Network’s Executive Director Kurt Vaughn explained his organization’s response to the Remediation Plan in detail: “We essentially requested that in the short term they prioritize working with Indigenous partners to protect and stabilize cultural sites, permanently weld open all flood gates, remove all lighting from non-urban areas, stabilize disturbed construction sites and revegetate with native species, and in the longer term they dismantle portions of the barriers at strategic locations to allow for wildlife crossings.” Other issues pertinent to the AZT southern terminus include erosion control, remediation of staging areas, and stormwater regulation.
The Cochise and Santa Cruz Counties’ portion of the AZ-MX border is well documented as a north-south wildlife corridor, the southern end of the Huachuca Mountains designated as jaguar habitat, so wildlife crossings are a particular hotspot in the complex remediation discussion. Revegetation is another hotspot in the debate. It’s been pointed out that re-establishing vegetation on damaged lands in our current period of sustained drought is difficult and there’s the danger of invasive species taking over instead of the native species. Invasive species generally don’t interest grazing cattle and they often provide more fuel for wildfire.
An Arizona Daily Star article by Danyelle Khmara on January 9, 2022 quoted a borderlands rancher from further east, Kelly Glenn-Kimbro, of the Glenn ranch. Referring to the Federal government, she said “Instead of creating a proposal and asking for feedback, the administration should put together a taskforce to ask every single rancher, farmer, landowner and small border community about what’s truly needed.”
It’s not known if Glenn-Kimbro’s suggestion – or conservation groups’ suggestions for more wildlife monitoring before closing floodgates and other gaps in the wall – will be heard by Federal agencies. After finalizing the plan and seeking bids, it’s possible that work on the Tucson Sector remediation projects could begin within a few months, so it remains an open question whether the traditional spring surge of AZT through-hikers will get a chance to include that first iconic mile in the trip of a lifetime for many.