The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer:
My first trips to El Camino del Diablo were in the 1970s with my good friend and colleague Dr. Steve McLaughlin. We used a two-wheel drive pickup for our botanical pursuits. Along the Camino, the truck’s rear wheels regularly dug into the loose sand and sank up to the rear axle which had to be dug out with shovels. We used sheets of corrugated metal under the rear tires to enable the vehicle to progress another 100 feet or so until it sank again.
In the 19th century, when non-native people used this route to get to California rather than risk encountering hostile American natives to the north, death from exposure and no water was not uncommon. In 1896, David D. Gaillard of the U.S. Corps of Engineers counted 65 graves in a single day’s ride by horseback on the Camino.
As recent as the late 20th century, a broken vehicle or serious injury on the Camino could be life threatening, simply because there was no probability that anyone would be available to help. Still, the Camino has been a significant attraction for regular visits from people coming from many counties. It was a very special place, the kind of place that people need to spend time to ground what is important to their lives.
The change to the Camino began with the major increase in U.S. Border Patrol activity largely to control the illegal trade in marijuana and the illegal entry of predominantly Mexican citizens looking for work. BP not only had access to the Camino, but agents regularly drive their vehicles off across the delicate desert soils at will to pursue undocumented persons.
For years, the pursuit has continued, even while the possession and use of marijuana has been decriminalized or made legal by many states including those on the border like Arizona. Notwithstanding, the Border Patrol continues the destruction of desert soils that will take generations to heal.
Most recently, the Department of Homeland Security, largely under the Trump Administration, has expanded use of the Camino to enable unbridled spending of taxpayer dollars to continue to alter Sonoran Desert wilderness and to build a border wall dividing North America in half. Unfortunately, Congress has approved massive waiving of procurement and environmental laws for protecting public lands and ensuring government does not squander monies belonging to all of the American people.
Basically, where a once national historic dirt road provided limited access to a treasured wilderness, the Trump Administration has built a two lane dirt highway to enable the most massive of construction and transport vehicles easy access.
As part of the current border wall construction, the infrastructure is being established for providing electricity and water all along the border. Promoting any additional water usage in this manner in a state where we are currently using surface and ground water unsustainably should be subject to transparent public review. The current use of ground water for border wall construction already is destroying existing surface waters in protected Federal lands.
El Camino del Diablo has been devalued to being less than a historic marker at the side of the road. Before too much more of the heritage we treasure of the Southwest and the Sonoran Desert is lost, we might consider what we are allowing to be done by elected officials to monetize everything of value. I submit that is not who we are here in Southern Arizona.
Roger McManus is a biologist who has worked in the Federal government, including in the Executive Office of the President in two Administrations, and as a senior executive in several national conservation organizations.