Arizona state-funded contractors are building a wall out of shipping containers on federal land in the San Rafael Valley near the U.S.-Mexico border. The federal government and environmental advocacy groups are fighting the $95 million project in court. Photo by Russ McSpadden / Center for Biological Diversity

The state of Arizona is transporting shipping containers to the U.S.-Mexico border for the purpose of filling gaps in the border wall. Governor Doug Ducey claims the U. S. government has been slow to implement its plans to fill the gaps, so in order to protect the citizens of Arizona he is stepping in with a temporary solution. The Governor has been pushing the project, most likely in violation of federal law and despite warnings from the Coronado National Forest and the Bureau of Reclamation. 

According to the Governor’s office, the 8,800-pound, 9 ft by 40 ft containers stand about 22 feet tall when stacked, welded together, and topped with four feet of razor wire. One month into the project, the cost to taxpayers is already $95 million, according to C. J. Karamargin, a representative from the Governor’s office, who stated that the funds are coming from a state border security fund. That does not include the cost of removing them.

Containers were first seen near Yuma in late summer. Now they are in the southern portion of the Huachuca Mountains near Montezuma Pass in Cochise County. Heavy equipment and trucks are tearing up the landscape to transport, stage, and install the containers. By Nov. 30, the wall of double decker containers in Cochise County extended over 2.5 miles into the San Rafael Valley. 

The Huachuca Mountains are particularly biologically diverse. The Sky Island Alliance (SIA) has wildlife cameras along the border in the Huachucas to document wildlife presence and travel. Common visitors include grey fox, black bear, bobcat, coati, ringtail, mountain lion, and over 27 species of birds. 

Emily Burns, Program Director at SIA, says the container construction site is less than a mile from the terminus of the national scenic Arizona Trail, which is designated a critical habitat for jaguars. And it is home to other rare and imperiled species, from ocelots to elegant trogons. Once the rains return, there is a real chance that containers will be pushed around and cause severe habitat damage. 

The project has fueled two legal battles. Governor Ducey has sued the federal government, claiming the State’s right to build the container wall within the 60-foot-wide strip of federal land next to the border known as the Roosevelt Reservation. At issue are the legality of the Roosevelt Reservation; who controls the land at the border; and whether the State has the authority to place the containers there. The decision in Phoenix Federal District Court is due in December. 

Meanwhile, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) has filed a notice of intent to sue Arizona under the Endangered Species Act to protect the jaguar and ocelot. The state has challenged CBD’s intervention filing. CBD has responded and the legal grappling continues. 

Trucks transporting the containers have been witnessed frequently crossing the one-lane bridge in Elgin as they caravan to staging sites at the border. Drivers on Hwy 82 between Elgin and Mustang Corners have also reported heavy truck traffic. 

Tess Wagner, Watershed Restoration Manager at Borderlands Restoration Network (BRN), says the containers have blocked drainages where BRN has been doing restoration work. “It’s demoralizing,” she said. 

Many people who have seen the double decker container walls question their effectiveness in stopping people from crossing the border. Others believe the timing of the project suggests it was a political tactic used by the governor and the Republican party to influence the November elections. If so, it appears to have failed as the Democratic candidate, Katie Hobbs, won the election. Opponents of the project hope Governor-elect Hobbs will end it upon taking office. 

Environmental advocate Russ McSpadden (left) and a protester at Tuesday’s demonstration. Photo by Pat McNamara

On Tuesday, Nov. 29, a group of 15 concerned citizens and members of environmental advocacy groups staged a formal protest against the project at the container wall. Protesters blocked work on the wall as workers and an armed security officer looked on. 

“At this point, all that can be done is a slowing of the process,” said Christie Brown, a Sierra Vista resident and Sierra Club member.

When asked to comment, one worker said, “Ask the Department of Emergency and Military Affairs. I only answer to a higher power.”

No counter protesters were present.

Protesters planned to return to the site the next day to continue blocking the trucks. They estimated that they had blocked a quarter-mile of work the first day. The group wants to keep up the protest until Hobbs is in office. 

Russ McSpadden, an environmental advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity who documents the construction activity weekly, posted this account of Tuesday’s demonstration on Twitter:

Another protester posted this:

Additional reporting by Pat McNamara