The U.S. Forest Service is warning the public to stay away from an area of the Coronado National Forest where shipping containers commissioned by Gov. Doug Ducey are being erected as a barrier on the border with Mexico and where armed individuals are standing guard to protect the workers who are building the temporary wall.
Starr Farrell, a spokeswoman with the Forest Service’s office in Tucson, said the armed individuals guarding the containers and the construction workers are “a group of people meeting up on social media, they’re protecting the workers and the containers.”
In a press release Wednesday, Farrell referred to the armed persons as “unauthorized armed security personnel.”
The state and the federal government have been battling over the containers since they started materializing along the border last month.
Ducey has long criticized the federal government for ignoring the situation on the border and the realities that plague Arizona’s border counties — Cochise County among them— with the constant deluge of undocumented migrants and drugs coming across daily from Mexico.
The governor has repeatedly said that if the federal government would not assist Arizona in fighting the situation at the border then he would take matters into his own hands.
“Gov. Ducey vowed in his State of the State address in January that Arizona will add physical barriers where we can, and he is keeping that promise,” C.J. Karamargin, Ducey’s communications director, said earlier this month.
Karamargin did not return an email or a phone call to the Herald/Review on Wednesday regarding the Forest Service’s admonition to the public.
Ducey ordered that the containers — there are about 2,700 of them — be erected along a 10.25-mile stretch of border where there is no barrier. The containers are double-stacked and cost about $95 million, the governor’s office has said.
The feds, via the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have warned the state that placing the containers in the Coronado National Forest is illegal because they’re encroaching on federal land. The USDA also says the containers are an environmental and safety hazard.
“The state’s project, currently located in the vicinity of Copper Canyon south of National Forest System Road 61 in the Sierra Vista Ranger District, continues to expand, with attendant construction equipment and unauthorized armed security personnel on-site,” Farrell said. “The Forest Service has informed the state that the presence of the containers is unlawful.
“Until the situation is resolved, visitors to the Coronado National Forest, including those seeking to recreate, hunt or collect fuelwood should refrain from entering the area where the state’s activities are taking place or otherwise exercise caution when traveling to the area.”
She said the conflict with the state is now in the hands of federal attorneys.
“Right now (this) is going through our lawyers to determine how to proceed with the case,” Farrell said in a brief telephone interview Wednesday.
Farrell’s press release was preceded on Tuesday by a protest at the site where the containers are being placed. Those attending were attempting to stop the workers from erecting the barriers.
Cochise County Sheriff spokeswoman Carol Capas said deputies responded to the container construction area after receiving a call that there may have been a disturbance there just after 10 a.m.
Capas said the caller was concerned because protesters were blocking the roadway near the construction site.
While the protesters were on federal land, the Sheriff’s Office would respond if called to assist, Capas said.
In an email to the Herald/Review Wednesday, one of the protesters, Brian Peterson of Sierra Vista, said the event was organized by “word of mouth.”
Peterson documented the incident with several photos of protesters standing in front of the dark red containers, holding up signs decrying the construction.
Aside from the container controversy, Ducey filed a lawsuit in October asking a federal judge to void a 115-year-old presidential declaration by President Theodore Roosevelt that gives the federal government control of a 60-foot swath along the Arizona-Mexico border.
Known as the Roosevelt Reservation, it’s a section of land where the containers have already been placed.
In the lawsuit, the governor contends that Roosevelt had no legal right to declare all the land along the border as property of the federal government without congressional approval. Brett Johnson, the attorney hired by Ducey, wrote that Roosevelt’s claim “conflicts with the state’s sovereignty of the land.”
“With this lawsuit, we’re pushing back against efforts by federal bureaucrats to reverse the progress we’ve made,” the governor said in a prepared statement recently. “The safety and security of Arizona and its citizens must not be ignored.”
In the complaint, the governor maintains that “lack of planning and action from the Biden administration demonstrates that border states like Arizona cannot rely on the federal government to ensure its security.”
According to the governor’s office, Ducey’s suit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona, is intended to resolve the state’s authority to protect its citizens, granted to it by the U.S. Constitution.
Through the lawsuit, Ducey is seeking a court declaration “that the state has a constitutional authority to take immediate temporary steps … to stem the imminent danger of criminal and humanitarian crises related to the Arizona border.”
For questions regarding safety information in this area, contact U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Sonoita Station, at 520-455-5051. For additional questions, contact the Coronado National Forest at Mailroom_R3_Coronado@usda.gov. For the most current updates about the Coronado National Forest, go the Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/CoronadoNF, and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/CoronadoNF.