CORONADO NATIONAL FOREST — The Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Patrol are preparing to begin remediation efforts on sections of the border in Southern Arizona, including some sections in Cochise County.
On Dec. 20, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas authorized CBP to move forward with activities necessary to address life, safety, environmental and remediation requirements for border barrier projects previously undertaken by the Department of Defense under President Trump. According to the statement released by DHS, these activities will take place in Border Patrol’s San Diego, El Centro, Yuma, Tucson, El Paso and Del Rio sectors. A large majority of the activities will take place in the Tucson sector, which covers Cochise County.
Previously, President Joe Biden ordered the cancellation of all DOD 284 projects, Trump’s border wall construction. Now as part of that process, the DOD will turn over all unfinished projects to DHS to undertake activities that are necessary to address urgent life, safety, environmental or other remediation required to protect border communities.
According to the DHS statement, the planned border remediation activities include but are not limited to: completing or installing drainage to prevent flooding; installing and completing permanent erosion control and slope stabilization; completing of prior construction of patrol, maintenance and access roads; remediating temporary use areas; disposing of residual materials not required for the completion of the work; and closing small gaps that remain open from prior construction and remediating all incomplete gates.
This statement from DHS came just one day before Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey filed a stipulation in his most recent lawsuit with the federal government over the shipping containers he ordered installed in Yuma and Cochise County. In the stipulation Ducey agreed to cease construction along the border and to begin removing the shipping containers.
Ducey agreed to remove all shipping containers from the border in Yuma by Jan. 4, but the stipulation does not provide a deadline for the removal of the 3½ miles of shipping containers in the Coronado National Forest. Instead, it committed Ducey to begin discussion with the U.S. Forest Service for the shipping containers’ removal within one week of the stipulation’s filing.
After filing the stipulation, Ducey’s team framed the removal of the containers as a victory, saying the shipping containers had worked to get the federal government’s attention and a permanent federal barrier was finally going to be installed.
“We’ve said from the very beginning that the shipping container program was never intended to be a permanent solution to this ongoing problem,” said C.J. Karamargin, a Ducey spokesman. “We said from the very beginning that we could happily remove them once the federal government steps up and starts to fulfill their responsibilities to secure the border.”
Despite the celebratory tone from Ducey’s team, the plans released by DHS and CBP make it clear that the permanent border barrier desired by Ducey is not likely to happen. The plans released by DHS and CBP only include closing small gaps and gates located within Sasabe, Nogales, Naco and Yuma sites. Plans from the federal government do not show any additional mileage or projects at this time.
In a statement to the Herald/Review, John Mennel, a spokesman for CBP, wrote “As announced on July 28th, 2022, DHS authorized CBP to execute the Yuma Morelos Dam Project to close four gaps located within an incomplete border barrier project near the Morelos Dam. Work is currently underway in the U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector to include remediation and make-safe activities at the incomplete border barrier sites formerly undertaken by the DoD in Sasabe, Nogales, Naco and Lukevill, Arizona. This work includes closing 27 gaps and gates located within Sasabe, Nogales and Naco.”
The 3½-mile stretch of border in the Coronado National Forest where Ducey has placed shipping containers was never part of an incomplete border barrier project undertaken by the DOD under the Trump Administration. It remained open due to its mountainous terrain and has served as one of the last open corridors for wildlife to migrate between Mexico and Arizona.
Robin Silver, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, who filed a complaint against Ducey and his contractor, AshBritt, last week over Clean Water Act violations told the Herald/Review, “There is no way they are considering the Huachucas-to-Nogales stretch a gap.”
The Biden administration continues to stand against any new border wall construction projects. At this time, it seems unlikely any federal wall will be built in place of the shipping containers once they are removed from the Coronado National Forest.
“The Administration continues to call on Congress to cancel remaining border wall funding and instead fund smarter border security measures that are proven to be more effective at improving safety and security at the border,” wrote DHS in the Dec. 20 statement.
Many in the community are celebrating the removal of the shipping containers from the Coronado National Forest, but some do not want Ducey’s construction project to be forgotten.
“Ducey’s seizure of United States lands needs to be clearly expressed to understand the severity of his out-of-control actions,” said Kate Scott, one of the lead organizers of the activists who shut down construction in the Coronado National Forest. “The rule of law is what binds us together. If heinous actions of this magnitude are not called out and exposed, as a nation we suffer the dire consequences. This was an unprecedented attack on our environment, our public lands, our watersheds and endangered and native wildlife.”
Plans for the removal of the shipping containers are beginning to emerge. On Dec. 23, an amendment to the state’s contract with AshBritt was signed. This amendment stated that work to remove the containers would begin on Dec. 29 and take an estimated 60 days to complete.
The latest amendments to the contract show the removal and transportation of the containers to the state prison in Tucson will cost taxpayers another $76 million.
On Dec. 28 the Forest Service released a statement saying the area around the construction site in the Coronado National Forest would be closed to the public starting Jan. 3. A map of the closure area can be found on the Forest Service’s website, fs.usda.gov.
“The state has agreed to remove the containers starting January 2023. To protect public health and safety during removal operations, the Coronado National Forest will implement a temporary area closure starting January 3, 2023, through March 15, 2023, unless conditions on the ground warrant a different closure period,” wrote the U.S. Forest Service.
Karamargin told the Herald/Review the actual removal of the containers would not begin until January but did not know the status of the negotiations.
“I think we can assume that the people on the ground are talking with each other to make sure this happens smoothly,” said Karamargin.
On Jan. 2, it is likely Ducey’s successor, Katie Hobbs, will be tasked with at least some of the cleanup in the Coronado National Forest. As of Dec. 30, Hobbs had not given any specific plans on the cleanup efforts. Instead, a spokesperson for Hobbs gave the Herald/Review a general statement on Hobb’s border policy.
“As we’ve said all along, the shipping containers are an ill-conceived political stunt,” said Josselyn Berry, acting press secretary for Hobbs. “Governor-elect Hobbs is monitoring the situation and remains committed to bringing resources to our border to provide meaningful and compassionate solutions for Arizonans and immigrants experiencing the consequences of federal inaction.”
Questions about the legacy of Ducey’s actions on the border. Many are still asking when the containers will be gone, what the environmental cost will be and what will be done with the containers once they are removed.