As Ducey's shipping container wall comes down, wildlife concerns and lawsuits are left behind
On a breezy morning in early December, Eamon Harrity, wildlife project manager with the conversation group Sky Island Alliance, scanned the horizon with a pair od binoculars.
“So, we climbed our way out of the oak woodlands of Patagonia Mountains, and we crested over into the San Rafael Valley. Which is a really beautiful, and mostly intact desert grassland system,” he said.
Down below, a herd of some 30 pronghorn antelope bounced up and down in the tall, golden grass. Harrity says there’s probably 300 of these animals Arizona-wide. They're one of dozens of cross-border species that call the San Rafael Valley home.
“So we’re looking at like 10% of all the pronghorn in this valley right now,” he said.
The valley stretches almost seamlessly across the international boundary and is punctuated by steep mountain peaks, called sky islands, where dramatically different environments give way to some of the richest biodiversity in the world.
It’s also nearly surrounded by the 30-foot steel bollard border wall the Trump administration built across the majority of Arizona’s borderland.
“The wall starts a little bit near Sierra Vista, and it goes through Naco, through Douglas, continues east, continues east, uninterrupted until you get to almost New Mexico, at Guadalupe Canyon it stops, so that’s 70 miles straight,” Harrity said.
The San Rafael Valley’s nearly 30-mile border stretch was slated to get the same wall, but construction hadn't yet started when President Joe Biden took office and halted his predecessor's wall project. Harrity says the area is now one of the last — and most important — wildlife and water corridors left along the Arizona-Sonora boundary.
“This is just a critical gap for the migration and movement of animals,” he said.
That’s why, about three years ago, the Sky Island Alliance began using wildlife cameras to monitor how animals were responding to new border barriers, and areas without them. Several dozens cameras set up along the border and a few miles north and south of it have captured everything from ocelots and mountain lions, to javelina and raccoons.
Then, in his State of the State address at the beginning of 2022, then-Gov. Doug Ducey said Arizona would build its own barriers where the federal government had not already done so.
"Our border is a patchwork of federal state tribal and federal lands, where Arizona can add physical barriers to the border, we will," he said.
That isn’t exactly true. While Arizona’s border does have some private and state land, it’s overwhelmingly under federal jurisdiction. The state isn’t allowed to build there. Nonetheless, last fall, Ducey commissioned two projects in Cochise and Yuma counties to build makeshift walls of shipping containers. Both were illegally built on federal land.
In Cochise County, the governor’s office planned to use 3,000 containers to line some 10 miles of Coronado National Forest land along the border. If completed, it would have covered a third of the San Rafael Valley gap.
For researchers like Harrity, the project meant this mostly untouched border wilderness was suddenly in peril. He says it’s still too early to tell exactly what those changes will be, but they want to make sure their cameras on and off the border capture its impacts.
"This landscape has a certain amount of resources and it can support a certain amount of animals, be it deer or, or predators, like American black bears and mountain lions and bobcats,” he said. “If you affect, negatively, a landscape in a way that pushes animals out … you might have increased competition. And that competition can cause reduced survival."
The Cochise County project came to a standstill in early December, thanks to efforts from local protesters. A lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice against the state of Arizona brought projects in both counties to an official halt just days later.
Harrity says in the roughly three months when contractors hired by the Ducey administration were actively working on the project, day-time animal crossings in the area came to a near-standstill. Crossings that were captured happened mostly during the early morning hours or late at night.
“Construction would really start in earnest around 7:00 a.m. and they would work without pause until three, 3:30 p.m. … those times of day were always just really busy with people and heavy trucks and noise and dust. So wildlife was really gone,” he said.
Back at the Sky Island Alliance office in Tucson, Harrity showed nighttime footage of a cotton-tail rabbit ducking in and out of the gaps between shipping containers. A massive mountain lion comes into view in footage captured with the same camera a few hours later.
Meanwhile, the land itself has also been damaged. Contractors used bulldozers to widen roads and create turn-arounds, activists say 100-year-old oak trees were downed in their wake. One of those trees was even housing a Sky Islands Alliance camera before it was bulldozed — the last of that footage shows a flurry of leaves and breaking branches before going black.
Under the Department of Justice suit, Arizona is required to remove the containers in both Yuma and Cochise counties, and begin environmental remediation.
This week, a spokesperson with the Coronado National Forest confirmed the last container had been removed.
All told, the projects cost Arizona taxpayers more than $200 million, according to contracts between the state of Arizona and the construction company, AshBritt.
Marc Fink, a senior attorney with the Center for Biodiversity, says more questions still lie ahead.
“The biggest concern of ours as far as remediation goes, is how they're gonna restore some of those areas that they impacted,” he said. “Unfortunately, this was, you know, not just a political stunt, but a really costly political stunt.”
Last year, Fink and other lawyers with the Center filed legal challenges against the Cochise County project on environmental grounds. But the projects moved forward for weeks until the federal government stepped in.
Now, that legal battle has shifted to Gov. Katie Hobbs. In an email, a spokesperson for the governor said remediation work, like clearing drainage areas and roadways, was being done by AshBritt, but said an estimation of the cost of remediation was not yet available.
In a court filing for the DoJ case Thursday afternoon, the Governor's Office and other parties agreed to hold off on proceedings for now, and said with the containers removed, federal entities should assess next steps for remediation.
For his part, Harrity says it's a relief to to see the barrier gone, but matter what happens next, the Sky Island Alliance cameras are there to stay.
“There's always the potential for more construction, and if there is a push to have a wall there, we wanna have eyes on the ground,” he said. “This was a reminder that it's always possible, the threat to the environment is real, and we need data to be able to communicate effectively that this is an important place to protect.”