Border Shuffle

Army Corps of Engineers contractors pour concrete in August for the base of a new section of border wall near Yuma. The Department of Homeland Security waived environmental and other regulations on 90 miles of Arizona’s border last year to allow border wall construction projects.

SIERRA VISTA — The Tohono O’odham Nation is gravely concerned about the numerous waivers issued for border wall construction after human remains were unearthed across the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument near Quitobaquito Springs within the 60-foot Roosevelt Reservation, land the federal government claims along the border, and outside of it.

Forty–one federal and state laws have been waived by the Trump Administration in Arizona for the construction of the boundary wall including the Arizona Desert Wilderness Act, The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, The American Indian Religious Freedom Act and the Arizona-Idaho Conservation Act of 1988 which formed the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (SPRNCA).

Ned Norris, chairman of the Nation, sent a letter Nov. 13, 2019, to the U.S. Border Patrol Tucson Sector Chief Patrol Agent Roy Villareal, in which he stated, “The Nation categorically opposes the barrier construction projects, because they directly harm and threaten both the lands currently reserved for the Nation and its ancestral lands. Given the extent of the planned construction, future discovery of cultural items impacted by this construction is inevitable.”

The border crosses 62 miles of Nation land and includes Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and, in Cochise County, the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge (SBNWR) and the San Pedro River, Norris stated.

In the letter, he pointed out, “The federal government already acknowledges that the national monuments and wildlife refuges subject to border barrier construction are saturated with archeological, cultural and historic resources.”

While some areas within the monument have been surveyed, many potential sites have not and the Nation fears the unrecorded archaeological resources will be “destroyed” by border wall construction

The National Park Service prepared a report in June last year on an archeological survey done in Organ Pipe after a find of five new sites and more than 50 isolated finds. Two of the sites were recommended for listing in the National Register of Historic Places due to its importance and light it can shed on earlier times, noted Norris.

The same is true for the SBNWR and the SPRNCA.

He spoke on a conference call with staff of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) last October and asked for maps showing exactly where the new 30-foot high fence will go and what mitigation steps would be taken if ancestral remains or cultural areas were uncovered in the clearing of land.

Norris said he was told the maps did not exist.

“Instead, CBP repeatedly reiterated its vague position that the waiver operates only east to west along the international boundary between the points described in the notice, but also ‘in the vicinity.’ CBP, DHS nor COE were able to identify to what area ‘in the vicinity’ actually refers,” he wrote.

Also, during the call, it was made clear “the construction of a 30–foot wall the Quitobaquito Springs area is a direct assault on a sacred site of the Nation” and “there is no way a 30–foot wall can be constructed at these sites without destroying their essential characters. The Nation believes that avoidance of these sites is the only acceptable mitigation strategy.”

Under the Native American Graves Protection Act and Repatriation Act, any site containing artifacts, settlements or remains must be reported to the Nation and construction stopped, continued Norris. However, those acts have been waived by DHS.

The Nation also asked buffer areas around “Quitobaquito Springs and other significant cultural sites so cultural resources not be destroyed for road widening within the Roosevelt Reservation.”

“The Nation accordingly requests the plans for construction be modified to create buffer zones of at least one mile east and west of Quitobaquito Springs, the San Pedro River, the SBNWR and others,” Norris asked.

On behalf of the Nation, Norris also requested more monitors be assigned to the construction sites to ensure archeological finds are protected, no groundwater be used near Quitobaquito Springs and SBNWR, wildlife migration allowed, a construction schedule and a formal consultation.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection official told Cronkite News the agency is careful to protect building sites, even where it has a waiver.

“CBP’s environmental planning process includes analysis of potential environmental impacts from each border infrastructure project. We identify best construction management practices to minimize impacts on the environment to the greatest extent possible,” the spokesperson said in an email.

According to Cronkite News, the CBP spokesperson said recently that section 102 waivers from 2008 are still in effect on the Tohono O’odham Nation, which is lined with vehicle barriers stretching the entire 75 miles. But she also said the agency “does not currently have plans for new border wall construction on the Tohono O’odham reservation.”

Editor's note: A previous version of this story misspelled Tohono O’odham in the headline and first paragraph. The Herald/Review apologizes for the error.

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