On May 6th 2020 the Trump administration awarded a $1.28 billion contract to build 42 miles of wall along the US-Mexico border. At just over $30 million per mile, this stretch promised to be one of the most expensive sections of freestanding wall ever built. And it’s not hard to see why. The Atascosa Highlands are a notoriously rugged and remote landscape. When the original US-Mexico boundary survey set up the first border markers in the mid 1800’s, they skipped over most of the Atascosas altogether, not feeling equipped to handle such unforgiving terrain. To add to the engineering challenges, under existing U.S. environmental laws the level of destruction necessary to construct such a barrier would violate dozens of regulations, so the Department of Homeland Security waived all obligation for these laws to be followed. The National Forest Act, the Clean Water Act, the Migratory Bird Conservation Act, the Antiquities Act, and the Noise Control Act, are just a few of the 41 statutes waived to allow border wall construction in Arizona. No environmental surveys were conducted to assess damage to the watersheds or habitat, and no one was hired to see if the course of road building or wall construction would harm the numerous endangered species which occur in these mountains.

            “I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great great wall on our southern border and I’ll have Mexico pay for that wall."

- Donald J. Trump, 45th President of the United States

            The wind whips across the grassland near the top of Triple Two. This used to be a tiny, winding Forest Service road, used mostly by hunters making their way through the Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) lined hills in search of Whitetailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus ssp. couesi). Now it’s wide open, the tops of the slopes peeled off like the lid from a tuna can where ammonium nitrate explosives have turned solid granite into rubble. A rutted jeep track transformed into a thoroughfare 30 feet wide in some places, and smoother than most asphalt roads in the Atascosa highlands. Above the whistling of the sharp breeze a low rumbling can be heard. Suddenly a massive yellow truck comes flying around the curve. It’s a mining hauler fixed with an 8,000 gallon water tank, and as the truck passes it blasts a fan of water from the back of the cistern coating the dusty soil as it speeds downhill to refill its water tank for another run. The water droplets briefly show a rainbow of colors as they reflect the light, but in minutes the sun has dried all traces of moisture from the ground.

            Farther along border monument 127 stands, a stark white obelisk, against the green and tans of oak and dry grass. The entire hillside below it has been blasted away, revealing the bones of the mountain. Volvo A60 mining trucks are being loaded up with the remains, straining at their 61 ton carrying capacity, further compacting the road that is being constantly wet down by passing water trucks. The machines dump the rubble away from the construction site and bulldozers plow it off the newly made road and on top of the Oaks (Quercus spp.) and Mesquites (Prosopis velutina) downhill. No one ever surveyed the slopes below the road, now submerged in rock and dirt with the tips of trees poking out like the masts of ships sunk in a shallow bay. Only a few yards from another new road, near the base of a Manzanita (Arctostaphylos pungens) is a small Santa Cruz Beehive Cactus (Coryphantha recurvata), a state listed rare plant. The only populations in the United States are in the Atascosa Highlands, and this individual is lucky enough not to be one of the many plants buried in several feet of waste rock. Flatbeds, loaded with concrete-filled steel bollard panels stacked six high clog the road below the construction. These panels are destined to line the US-Mexico border, as a monument of sorts. Below the old obelisk of the border monument, workers on a boom lift are guiding the driver of a massive forklift, working slowly together to drop one more panel into the waiting concrete and rebar foundation.

            The contract for this section of wall was awarded to Fisher Industries, a North Dakota based firm which rose unexpectedly to become a favored recipient of border wall funds. Fisher hired contractors, purchased equipment, and began digging wells. The 450 miles of wall built or remodeled during the Trump administration called for approximately 971,000 tons of concrete for pouring foundations, and filling the hollow steel bollards. All of this concrete required water, as did the road crews who compacted new roads through the constant spraying of water. In nearby Organ Pipe National Monument an estimated 84,000 gallons of water a day were being pumped from below ground to facilitate construction, as the worst drought in 1,200 years gripped the Southwest.

            As the 2020 election neared the administration encouraged contractors to complete as many miles of wall as possible, hoping to leverage the 450 mile number for political capital. But this number is deceptive, because the end result of the push to add mileage was that when faced with terrain which would slow down installation, the builders skipped these sites and moved on. Peaks, drainages, and canyons cut north to South across the Atascosa Highlands at unpredictable intervals, so across the range the wall is riddled with gaps. These range from 18 foot splits where 3 panels have been left out across shallow washes, to open spaces of several miles between sections of barrier. These gaps render the wall far from impenetrable, and the system of improved roads used to carry equipment down to the border are now open to serve as reliable arteries of travel for those moving north without legal sanction. In places canyons have been cut through hillsides, with the border barrier walls placed right up against the Mexico side of these man made cliffs. In these places any would-be crosser has no wall to climb, simply one to scale down.

            Half finished roads, and the halt called on border wall construction under the Biden administration leaves these projects, and the landscape they cut through, in the lurch. Though construction has continued in the first week of the new administration’s term, it is likely that soon construction on the wall will quiet down while broken contracts wind their way through a labyrinthe of lawsuits and countersuits as jilted contractors like Fisher Industries seek compensation from an administration that ran on a platform of cancelling their contracts early. In the Atascosa Highlands these issues will not be easily resolved. Past border wall construction carried out in the late 90’s and early 2000’s shows an alarming trend towards erosion and the spread of invasive species into surrounding areas. Patches of diverse native grassland will over time give way to monocultures of invasive plants. Native or non-native, disturbance loving species move into these areas and displace the flora which was present before. The unfinished wall will serve as a testing ground for the effects of industrial scale construction in remote wilderness areas. Roads perched precariously on hillsides may simply be left unfinished and unreinforced, leading to the potential for extreme impacts on local watersheds as heavy monsoon rains wash loose rubble into canyons and drainages.

            This wall has inflamed local opinion in the small towns like Arivaca on which it will have the greatest impact. To some living close to the border this wall is a blessing. For them the loss of cattle through cut barbed wire, or the traffic of migrants and border patrol agents across their land creates daily problems, and the thought of a physical barrier brings a real sense of comfort and security. For others the wall represents a direct threat to a beloved landscape and its wildlife, and presents the reality of an overdrawn water table during a historic drought. There is also the lingering question of how effective even a 30 foot tall, 6 inch thick steel fence can be at stopping a trade which brings billions of dollars to Mexican Cartels every year. Arivaca residents have reported ultralight planes dropping bales of marijuana on their property, and anecdotal reports of tunnels underneath sections of the new wall have begun to emerge. On top of this, an estimated 90% or more of all drugs entering the U.S. through Mexico come through legal ports of entry such as the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales where large scale border barriers have been installed for over a decade.

For now, despite a change in political administration, the question of what the impacts of all this construction will be remains open. As the water trucks, forklifts, and rubble haulers fall silent, and the weeds begin to fill in the broken ground, the fate of the Atascosa Highlands will be decided by politicians across the country in Washington DC. 

Life will go on here, but the borderline will never be the same.