In the Coronado National Memorial — where conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado entered what is now Arizona — contractors are pulverizing the wilderness in a rush to put up as many miles of border wall as possible before the Trump administration vacates Washington.
They're dynamiting mountainsides and bulldozing pristine desert for a barrier the incoming Biden administration is expected to cancel.
"Wow! This is almost like busy work they're doing," exclaims biologist Myles Traphagen as he drives his truck up to the construction staging area and beholds the destruction for the first time. He specializes on the Arizona borderlands for the Wildlands Network.
"They're cutting roads into a place where no vehicle could go, not a four-wheeler," he says. "But now they're cutting into the mountain to create access to build a wall."
This is one of 29 construction projects being performed by 13 different contractors from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas. In Arizona, contractors have added shifts — they're working all night long under light towers to meet Trump's goal of 450 miles of new barriers before his term is over.
Trump's wall forcing unplanned experiment on deserts
"There's no doubt they're accelerating the rate of construction," says ecologist Ron Pulliam, who has been monitoring the wall's progress on the Arizona border. "They're trying to do as much as they can in the next 50 days. And Trump wants to fulfill his promise that he's securing the border."
Landowners and conservationists are irate. Gary Nabhan, a longtime author and ethnobotanist in the region, says Trump's wall is forcing an unplanned experiment on the deserts of Southern Arizona.
"The wall is going through such sensitive areas and going up so fast that no one knows what effect it's going to have on wildlife," he says. "I mean, we have no idea what 24/7 lighting will have on the bats that pollinate at night."
The reason the 30-foot wall with its high-intensity security lights and wide patrol road is sparking such outrage is because of the region's rich biodiversity and stunning natural beauty. Critics consider this a desecration of some of the last wild places along the U.S.-Mexico divide.
Dramatic landscape alteration documented
The Department of Homeland Security has waived dozens of federal environmental protections — such as the Arizona Wilderness Act and the Endangered Species Act — in order to erect the wall in these sensitive landscapes, and to avoid lawsuits.
In New Mexico, Arizona and California, the government is erecting the wall on a 60-foot strip of federal land that parallels the international border called the Roosevelt Reservation.
Wall construction proceeds much more slowly in Texas where most of the border acreage is in private hands and must be acquired through the power of eminent domain. But with a change of presidents only six weeks away, U.S. attorneys have sped up their condemnation of property along the international river in Texas to build the wall.
The dramatic extent of landscape alteration in the remote Arizona borderlands is being documented through drone footage shot by John Kurc. He's a wedding and rock 'n' roll photographer from Charleston, S.C., who fell in love with the Sonoran desert. Gray hair tumbles out of a sombrero, as he sets his little aircraft on the ground.
A critical wildlife corridor
"So what I'll do is I'll fly fairly close to the top of that ridge to try to determine where they're going to dynamite," he says, directing his drone toward the defaced slopes in the Coronado.
Nature lovers come here for the oak-dotted canyons, rugged peaks, extravagant vistas and grasslands so verdant that the nearby San Rafael Valley was used as a setting for the 1955 musical Oklahoma!
Moreover, the area is a critical wildlife corridor. Two endangered cats — the ocelot and the jaguar — crisscross the international boundary looking for water and prey.
"There's only a 4-inch gap between the bollards in the wall," says Traphagen, who joined Kurc for the drone excursion, "so it excludes anything larger than a ground squirrel."
The drone descends out of the brilliant blue sky like a giant insect, with the first images of the Border Patrol's new roads up the west side of the mountain. Kurc says when he visited this place three months ago, it was unscarred.
"And now what I'm seeing is a thousand times worse," he says. "Now I'm documenting destruction versus complete wilderness areas."
Contractors continue their work even though President-elect Joe Biden has said there won't be another foot of wall constructed in his administration. Biden's transition team did not answer an email asking when and where the new president may stop wall construction.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the massive $15 billion project, says it will not speculate on actions the incoming administration "may or may not take."
"Unless a Suspension of Work order is issued, USACE expects contractors to continue work as obligated under their contracts," the agency said in statement.
'Border wall has made our city safer'
U.S. Customs and Border Protection maintains that the barrier is necessary to gain operational control of the Southwest border. The agency says the mountainous zones — as beautiful as they may be — are used by drug and human smugglers, and the agency's mission is to stop that illegal traffic.
Much of the current wall is replacing dozens of miles of so-called Normandy barriers that stop vehicles driving over from Mexico, but not people on foot.
"I know there's wildlife and all that stuff. But at the end of the day, as callous and as horrible as this sounds, I think the lives of people is a lot more important than anything else," says Art Del Cueto, with the National Border Patrol Council, the agents' union. He is not a spokesman for CBP.
"I think it's important to have wildlife out there. But I don't think enough research has been done to actually say, 'Hey, if you build out here, all the jaguars in the world are gonna die.' I think it's more of a cop-out for some people, and they use that as their little ace up their sleeve so they can prevent border security."
Del Cueto's hometown is Douglas, Ariz., which sits across from Agua Prieta, Mexico. "When I was growing up in Douglas," he says, "you were having groups of 50 and 60 illegal aliens running through the alleys."
Today, Douglas is sealed off from Mexico by a tall wall built under President George W. Bush and completed by Trump.
"What we used to see in this city was illegals running up and down our alleys, through our streets, chases by the Border Patrol. (It was) unsafe for our local citizens," says Douglas Mayor Donald Huish. "The border wall has made our city safer. It's pushed that type of activity outside our city limits."
Huish was unaware that wall teams have been dynamiting near Guadalupe Canyon — another beloved, biodiverse natural area located east of Douglas, where he goes deer hunting. When shown an iPhone photo of the new switchback roads zigzagging up Guadalupe Peak, he reacts with shock: "Oh no! It's hard to believe that that was the solution. That's not good."
"The wall is a good solution for around the city limits," he continues, "but once it gets outside of town into the wilderness area, that's where the surveillance technology should have taken over. But nobody asked my opinion."
Opponents say the wall will worsen flooding
Like Huish, many landowners are upset by plans for the massive steel-and-concrete barrier in the malpais, or badlands, near the Arizona-New Mexico border. Owners of the Diamond A Ranch sued the government last week in federal court.
"In many portions of the proposed border wall, grades before construction began were so steep that the land was accessible only by foot and mule," reads the complaint.
Blasting crews have used explosives — they call it pioneering — to level the cliff sides for access roads. "Clouds of demolition dust, shrapnel, and car-sized boulders have come tumbling down the Roosevelt Reservation onto ranch property," says the complaint, which calls for an immediate halt to construction.
Opponents also say the wall will worsen flooding. The structure crosses numerous dry creeks and riverbeds. During the rainy season, they turn into torrents that carry tons of debris that could clog the steel-bollard barrier and cause floodwaters to back up.
So far, the Trump administration has won nearly every court challenge to the border wall. And CBP assures that it will dispatch crews to unlock gates in the wall to let the floodwaters pass.
But that has not mollified neighbors. Valer Clark is president of Cuenca Los Ojos, a land conservation group that has spent decades restoring ranchland and wetlands in Mexico on property next to Trump's wall.
"It's horrific," she says. "I mean, it's 40 years of work that I'm seeing dry up, and for what? As an American, I feel ashamed."