Turkey vultures coast on the hot wind over Arizona’s Coronado National Memorial, where a hiking path wends downhill to the international boundary between the U.S. and Mexico.
The Yaqui Ridge Trail used to take visitors right up to the border. Today it ends abruptly at another barrier: an orange, plastic construction fence.
That’s because this is one of the stretches of the border where the administration of former President Donald Trump started building a new wall. President Biden stopped that work on his first day in office, leaving construction sites like this one in limbo.
Coronado National Memorial is one of many natural areas along the border where abandoned border wall construction has left scars in the landscape. Biden promised a plan for what to do about those sites within 60 days of taking office, but the administration is now months past that deadline.
A White House official acknowledged the issue but said there is not yet an official plan for how to proceed.
A spokeswoman for the National Park Service said they are working with Customs and Border Protection to "address ongoing construction impacts” at Coronado, which she said is one of the sites "most impacted by border construction.”
Another is Arizona’s Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, where Myles Traphagen is flying his drone on a sunny day in May. The drone gives him a bird’s-eye view of a mountain top that has been blown to pieces.
“I’m ground truthing locations on the border to identify the gaps that are in the border fence,” he says, “and to also document places that are in immediate need of restoration.”
Traphagen, who works for the conservation group Wildlands Network, says the abandoned construction sites are a public safety hazard.
“Anybody could essentially walk up here and not even know the danger that they might be in,” he says, citing open pits and air pollution from the half-finished work.
Putting this damaged mountain top back together won’t be an easy fix, Traphagen says.
“They’ve blasted a notch through the mountain that’s right on the border,” he says. “There’s really no going back.”
A few feet away, a brand new section of Trump’s steel fence stands 30 feet tall.
Aside from a few federal agents patrolling the desert in white trucks, this stretch of the border is deserted. But there is plenty of debris.
Piles of rebar are stacked up along the side of the road, leftover from the border wall construction that stopped on Inauguration Day. Groundwater in plastic-lined retention ponds used to mix concrete has been left to evaporate under the sun.
‘Fix What's Already Done — And Finish It’
Lawmakers along the border are aware of the problem. Arizona Congressman Raúl Grijalva represents this district and chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources.
“I think some of the damage, to be honest with you, is irreparable,” he says.
Grijalva recently called on the Government Accountability Office to investigate. Last week the GAO agreed, saying it will conduct a full study “relating to the impacts of the U.S.-Mexico border wall on natural and cultural resources along the southwestern border.”
Now Grijalva, a Democrat, wants Congress to act.
“We are hoping the GAO report provides the credible, third-party, independent analysis that will kind of prod some of my colleagues to remediate, restore and in some instances, remove the damage that has been done,” he says. “If we were to continue what we see now, not only would it be permanent, it would also be worse.”
The Trump administration built 455 miles of wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Much of that involved replacing fences and other existing barriers with the kind of 18- and 30-foot steel bollards seen at Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.
Republicans along the border want to see construction on the wall resume.
“Stop and fix what's already done — and finish it,” says Mark Dannels, sheriff of Cochise County, Arizona.
“Right now we have an international border that's in disarray. You have gaps in the fence that’s not complete, you have gates not put up, you have cables out of the ground,” says Dannels, whose county covers the southeast corner of the state. “So the cartels are exploiting that. We see it every day.”
Despite its moratorium on new construction, the Biden administration has completed at least two projects along the border that it says were necessary "to ensure the safety of nearby border communities."
Workers shored up soil erosion along a 14-mile stretch of fencing in San Diego, and repaired a flood barrier system in Hidalgo County, Texas, that the Department of Homeland Security says was damaged when the previous administration "blew large holes" into it.
But the president has vowed not to build “another foot” of new border wall.
‘Using A Hammer To Kill A Fly’
If construction were to resume, it might start along an eight-mile gap in the wall outside Nogales, Arizona, where mountain peaks cascade in every direction. From the top of some, you can glimpse the Gulf of California.
Vermilion flycatchers and Inca doves perch in the juniper and oak trees, and a gentle breeze rustles through a field of grass that is as golden as the sun.
“They were on track to blast through these mountains and create a road and access,” says Traphagen of the Wildlands Network. “If President Biden had not won the election we would be standing on a 60-to-80-foot wide road right now, blasted through these mountains with a 30-foot border wall and stadium lighting to follow it up.”
Instead, there is a small barbed-wire fence, and it’s easy to find signs that people are crossing it.
“There’s a clear trail that goes through it and the middle two strands had been cut,” he says. “Things happen here. At nighttime things begin to roam and move, and it’s historically always been that way.”
Traphagen disagrees with Republicans who say that’s evidence for why this area needs a wall.
“The problem with the border wall,” he says, “is it’s basically using a hammer to kill a fly.”
He says blasting through this pristine habitat to finish the wall would disrupt animal migrations and change the landscape forever.
As the afternoon shadows grow longer, Traphagen points out one more thing that is visible from this hilltop: a Border Patrol outpost just a few hundred yards away, its camera searching the wilderness for signs of life.
This segment aired on June 8, 2021.