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Plans for taller border fence in Arizona take shape
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Plans for taller border fence in Arizona take shape

Customs and Border Protection plans to replace 63 miles of border fence in Southern Arizona. The project will replace short vehicle barriers in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, left, with 18- to 30-foot posts, like those near Nogales, right.

The Trump administration’s plans for a border barrier in Southern Arizona are taking shape.

Last week, Customs and Border Protection said it planned to replace 63 miles of “dilapidated or outdated” border fencing in Southern Arizona with concrete-filled steel poles standing 18 to 30 feet tall.

On Friday, Department of Defense officials said $1.5 billion would be used in four fencing projects on nearly 80 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, some of which would take place near Tucson.

If CBP’s plans come to fruition, nearly 44 miles of the border along Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the adjacent Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, located about 150 miles west of Tucson, will have the replacement fencing, known as bollards.

The bollard fence also would cut across the San Pedro River at the border, a small section in the Coronado National Memorial, and 19 miles in southeastern Cochise County, according to a May 6 notice from CBP.

Much of the border in the Cabeza Prieta refuge, the Organ Pipe monument and the area east of Douglas has chest-high, post-and-rail vehicle barriers or similar barriers. Those barriers can stop trucks and cars, but a person or animal can walk through them.

In the past year, more than 2,500 migrant family members from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador walked across the border west of Lukeville on the Organ Pipe monument and turned themselves in to Border Patrol agents, including 231 on April 30.

The area also is a prime crossing spot for men hauling backpacks of marijuana into smuggling corridors where mountaintop scouts guide them away from Border Patrol agents, federal court records in Tucson show.

The corridors that run through Organ Pipe and Cabeza Prieta have proven deadly for cross-border migrants.

In the last decade, 312 sets of human remains believed to belong to migrants were found there, according to records from the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner. Last week, the Tucson-based humanitarian aid group No More Deaths said they found four sets of human remains on the Cabeza Prieta refuge after a migrant’s family called an emergency hotline.

“Endgame” for jaguars, ocelots

The public has until July 5 to submit a comment about the proposed border fencing.

CBP is asking for comment about “potential impacts to the environment, culture, and commerce, including potential socioeconomic impacts, and quality of life,” according to the May 6 request.

So far, the most vocal reactions to CBP’s announcement came from environmentalists, particularly in light of the fact that the Department of Homeland Security can waive numerous environmental protection laws to build the fence.

As a result, the projects could “move forward without meaningful environmental reviews and regardless of public input,” said Kevin Dahl, Arizona senior program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.

Documented sightings of ocelots and jaguars in Southern Arizona mountain ranges have caused a stir in Tucson in recent years, and they are among the endangered species that could be threatened by a taller border fence.

The proposed fencing would be the “endgame” for ocelots and jaguars to expand their habitat into Arizona, said Chris Bugbee, senior scientist at nonprofit Conservation CATalyst.

The corridors used by the cats to cross the border are “slated to have that 30-foot wall,” Bugbee said, calling the proposal a “worst-case scenario.”

Bugbee’s group plans to submit comments opposing the project, he said.

Tricia Gerrodette, an environmental activist in Sierra Vista, said the proposed fence is “pretty clearly not good news for creatures that need to migrate back and forth.”

Pedestrian fencing already runs on either side of the San Pedro River, and Gerrodette said she hoped the Border Patrol would respect “how powerful water is” and build gates in the riverbed that could be raised.

She pointed to rainwater building up against the mesh border fence near Lukeville in 2011 that eventually knocked down a 40-foot section. Three years later, monsoon rains and debris built up near Nogales and toppled a 60-foot section of the fence, flooding a neighborhood.

On the Cabeza Prieta refuge, environmentalists have worked for years to rehabilitate the endangered Sonoran pronghorn.

The proposed wall would be a “devastating blow to the Sonoran pronghorn,” said Myles Traphagen, borderlands project coordinator with the Wildlands Network in Tucson.

“Reducing its available habitat by building an unnecessary, expensive and ineffective border wall is one of the most cruel and destructive actions one could inflict upon an organism,” Traphagen said. “Now, more than ever, in the face of climate change, the Sonoran pronghorn needs more, not less, habitat.”

The Mexican highway that runs parallel to the border is a “formidable barrier” for the pronghorn, Traphagen said.

“But there’s quite a difference between a formidable barrier and an absolutely impermeable border wall.”

A 30-foot wall would short-circuit any potential plans to establish a binational corridor that would allow the pronghorn to migrate and strengthen the species’ genetic pool, said Laiken Jordahl, borderlands campaigner at Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.

“This wall would be a nail in the coffin for any hopes of a transboundary pronghorn population,” Jordahl said. “It’s hard to describe just how much damage this wall would do.”

More projects planned

As it stands, 141 miles of the border in the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector have vehicle barriers, 71 miles have pedestrian fencing, and 50 miles have barbed wire or no fencing.

The Tucson Sector did not provide the rationale for why each area was chosen for the bollard fencing, the cost of the proposed projects, or the funding sources.

Border Patrol officials have said in the past that bollard fencing often is used in border towns as a way to slow down smugglers and migrants before they blend into neighborhoods. Vehicle barriers in remote areas give agents time to track border-crossers and apprehend them before they arrive at towns or highways.

In terms of cost to the taxpayer, a previous contract award for a similar project sheds some light on the recently announced projects.

In December, CBP awarded a contract to replace 14 miles of secondary wall and 15 miles of primary wall with 30-foot bollards in Southern California. The base contract value was $169 million and rose to $287 million when contract options were included.

The funds for the December contract came from fiscal year 2018 appropriations for CBP, according to a news release.

The proposals for Southern Arizona are part of a slew of recent announcements about border fencing.

Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan told Congress last Wednesday that the Pentagon planned to fund 256 miles of border barriers, including 63 miles in the next six months.

During an April 11 visit to Nogales, Vice President Mike Pence said the Trump administration planned to build “physical barriers in the next year” on about 80 miles of the Arizona-Mexico border.

On April 8, CBP announced plans to replace 6.5 miles of vehicle barriers and pedestrian fencing with bollards near Yuma. The same day, CBP announced a similar plan for 46 miles of the border in Luna and Dona Ana counties in New Mexico.

If the recently announced projects are completed, the Tohono O’odham Nation would have one of the largest sections of vehicle barriers on the border in Southern Arizona.

“The Tohono O’odham Nation will never support a fortified wall on its lands,” Chairman Edward D. Manuel said in a statement Friday.

“It would divide our people, devastate the regional environment and ecosystem, and destroy sacred sites, all while failing to halt the flow of migrants and smugglers.

“After seeing the unique terrain on the Nation, government officials have acknowledged multiple times that a fortified wall in this region does not make sense,” Manuel said.

The Nation remains “committed to helping protect the U.S. homeland,” Manuel said.

“However, wasting billions of taxpayer dollars that will cause massive desecration simply to satisfy a hollow campaign promise is no way to conduct public policy,” Manuel said. “As a result, the Nation will do everything in its power to fight this misguided and ineffective effort.”

Republican U.S. Sen. Martha McSally of Tucson said Friday in a statement there is an “undeniable crisis at our border fueled by wide-open loopholes that entice smugglers and cartels to traffic children.

“Securing our border means closing these legal loopholes and also using physical infrastructure like barriers, access roads, fixed and mobile towers and agents to stop the illegal activity,” McSally said.

“New and replacement border barriers should be prioritized to where local Border Patrol needs it most with consultation from border ranchers most impacted by the crisis and the decades of broken promises to fix it,” McSally said.

U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a Tucson Democrat who represents much of the area that would be affected by the bollard projects, said in a statement Wednesday that the wall “won’t stop border migration” and that the Trump administration “should end this madness immediately and stop wasting taxpayer money on a wall people don’t want.”

Grijalva accused the Trump administration of “shadily laundering Department of Defense funding” to pay for the fence.

According to a statement from Democratic U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s office on Friday, “Kyrsten supports physical barriers at our border where effective, and she is looking forward to hearing the feedback CBP receives on this proposal for replacement fencing.”

Contact reporter Curt Prendergast at 573-4224 or or on Twitter @CurtTucsonStar

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