The Coronado National Memorial, located at the southern end of the Huachuca Mountains, overlooks the eastern edge of San Rafael Valley along the border of Mexico. A short hike from the Montezuma Pass parking area on the Coronado Peak Trail leads to an overlook of the San Rafael Valley, which supports an ecosystem of oaks, sycamores, and a wide variety of plant and animal diversity. This area is rugged country with unique biodiversity and world-renowned ecological value.
The overlook provides a vista south into Mexico, north into the United States and west towards the next Sky Island, the Patagonia Mountains. These days, however, quiet contemplation of the vista is interrupted by the sound of heavy equipment. The mountain is literally being moved to build the border wall.
A short walk south from the vista, following the unaccustomed sounds of heavy machinery, a wide scar coiling like a serpent down the west slope of the mountain towards San Rafael Valley comes into sight. Activity is high; rocks, plants, and soil are being blasted, scraped, and dumped over the hillside to make room for the border wall. Hydraulic rock breakers, large earth moving equipment all toiling away like a scene from “Atlas Shrugged.” Attempting to walk closer, one sees that the entire Yaqui Ridge Trail, section 1 of the Arizona Trail to the international border, is closed indefinitely due to homeland security construction.
The bollard wall construction consists of embedded reinforced concrete barrier, with 30-foot-tall steel slats four inches apart. Construction is on fast forward until the inauguration of President-Elect Joseph Biden, who has stated he will stop construction of the border wall on day one of his presidency. Exactly how this will be accomplished is uncertain due to government contracts with companies building the wall. In some manner the border wall, as it is literally bulldozing across the country, will stop. But, where in the San Rafael Valley will it stop?
Numerous lawsuits have been filed over funding for the border wall, based on environmental concerns, government overreach, private property rights, and social justice issues pertaining to the wall. The Supreme Court has agreed to take up the case that President Donald Trump has unconstitutionally diverted Defense Department funds to pay for the wall expansion, but until the case goes to the Supreme Court, construction will continue. Considering that the court will not hear the case until 2021 after the inauguration, there may be no need to hear the case if Biden stops progress on the barrier. Biden has pledged to “end the so-called National Emergency that siphons federal dollars from the Department of Defense to build a wall,” according to information from his campaign website.
The borderlands between Arizona and Mexico are mostly federally owned. Consequently, building the wall across National Wildlife Refuges, National Parks and Monuments, and conservation areas has allowed the government to move quickly and to waive all environmental regulations and studies. In Arizona, new sections of the 30’ bollard wall have been built almost exclusively across U.S. government owned land, including Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, and the Coronado National Memorial.
San Rafael Valley is a jigsaw of various land grants and private ownership. Most of the borderland in the valley is owned by the State of Arizona or U.S. Forest Service, some is private. Part of the valley is in Cochise County and part is in Santa Cruz County.
Currently, the Valley has a Normandy beach-style vehicle barrier fence across the valley that allows animal movement to continue along historic migratory corridors. According to residents interviewed, this fencing was built about ten years ago. In the past three years ‘virtual wall towers’ have helped to significantly reduce the number of illegal migrants coming across the border. Virtual wall towers, also called Integrated Fixed Towers (IFTs), are 160-foot-tall surveillance towers that send data to Border Patrol agents using high-definition cameras, night vision sensors, and radar. IFTs, placed every three to seven miles across San Rafael Valley, have proven to be highly effective in providing surveillance of the border area. These have no noise or light pollution and are found to have no significant environmental impact on plant or animal species. Customs Border and Protection (CBP) plans to acquire technologically advanced towers that are solar powered and mobile to supplement the current IFTs and the Remote Video Surveillance System along the Arizona and Texas border. By fiscal year 2021-2022, CBP hopes to have deployed nearly 200 more towers along the remote areas of the Mexican/US border.
CBP statistics show apprehensions are down for illegal marijuana traffic since the legalization of marijuana in several western states. The last decade has seen a change in cartel activity from cross country crossings to smuggling hard drugs such as heroin and methamphetamines through the ports of entry.
Opinions about the border wall in San Rafael Valley are divided. Some landowners approve of the wall, while others think it is not necessary and an irresponsible use of taxpayers’ money. Zay Hartigan has lived on the KiHeKay Ranch located in San Rafael Valley, seven miles north of the Mexican border, for 23 years. Hartigan is also an Arizona Trail Steward for the section of the trail that extends from Canelo Pass to Parker Canyon Lake Trailhead. He stated the ranch had numerous illegal migrants coming through his area until the Normandy fencing and the IFTs were installed. Now for several years he has seen no illegal migrant activity. While working cattle in the grassland or traversing his segment of the Arizona trail he sees little trash or any other evidence of illegal migrants. Hartigan thinks the virtual wall has made an enormous difference in activity. He believes the bollard style wall is necessary in heavily trafficked areas closer to urban centers but suggests a tailored approach to border barriers would be an intelligent approach. “One size fits all” is degrading the environment, blocking streams and water drainage systems, disrupting wildlife corridors and habitat.
Border security is important to all Americans. The border in San Rafael Valley may avoid the 30-foot bollard wall. Citizens can be assured that the San Rafael Valley will have border security with a system of border protection, be it electronic surveillance, physical barrier, or a combination of both.