But the U.S. Border Patrol sees the river as a natural gateway for drug trafficking and illegal immigration to the United States.
In the waning days of the Trump administration, building crews are rapidly building a 30-foot-high steel-wall-style wall over the riverbed. Usually, the only sound you hear is the wind whipping through the golden leaves above your head. As you walk toward the site these days, the clattering sound of the building crew takes over.
Environmentalists say the work disrupts the migration patterns that depend on the river.
Customs and border protection states that border wall projects have undergone “environmental management plans” to analyze and minimize the environmental impact in the area where construction is taking place. And that part of the environmental impact assessment includes examining how wildlife can be affected by the projects.
The work is part of a final sprint to complete as many miles of the border as possible before President-elect Joe Biden takes office on January 20th.
By December 18, building crews had completed 438 miles of border wall since January 2017, according to Customs and Border Protection. Last year, the Trump administration promised to complete 450 miles by the end of 2020, just over a week from now. There are 37 boundary wall projects in motion along various points on the border with Mexico, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
This summer, Biden said that under his watch “there will not be another mason constructed in my administration.”
Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents border patrol agents, is celebrating the construction and hopes Biden will finish what Trump started.
“You have to secure the border to gain the trust and favor of the American public,” Judd said. “I really hope the Biden administration will look at this and look at how effective this has been and re-evaluate their position on the wall.”
Judd also claims that cross-border environmental concerns are “overblown” and that construction has not caused environmental damage.
A threat to migratory wildlife
Environmentalists and other activists could not disagree more.
Kate Scott, CEO and president of the Madrean Archipelago Wildlife Center, sees the wall construction as a disruptive threat to wildlife that trusts to migrate through this desert region.
“I feel great pain in my heart,” Scott said. “It’s like running a wand through my heart, because the river must be allowed to be and not have this monstrosity. This wall of shame.”
Scott watched as building crews welded lumps of the steel boundary wall that now stretches across the banks of the San Pedro River. The wall will be equipped with massive gates that can swing open during the region’s summer monsoon season. There is only a few inches of separation between each steel bollard.
When the heavy rains come, the river can turn into a furiously fast, fast-moving fallen tree and natural debris. The gates are supposed to let the river water flow without damaging the wall structure.
Customs and Border Protection Specialist in public affairs John Mennell said the agency was working to find places along the border where “small wildlife passages” could be created “that support wildlife migration without compromising border security.”
When it takes office, the Biden administration will face calls from activists not only to stop the wall, but to tear it down, especially in environmentally sensitive areas.
“This (wall) has to go. It has to. It’s too wrong for the environment, too wrong for the people who need to cross back and forth,” Scott said.
“This is nauseating and a waste of money,” Kurc wrote in a Twitter post earlier this month showing drone footage of what he described as explosion damage in Arizona’s Guadalupe Canyon, another location the administration has designated for the wall.
But from a high point looking toward the blast site in the Canyon, Border Patrol agent Daniel Hernandez defended the construction of these massive projects in some of the most remote areas of the southern border.
The wall is “not everything, be everything,” Hernandez said, but it is a piece of a broader border protection system that also includes boots on the ground as well as detection and surveillance technology. The wall, he said, slows down smugglers and migrants and gives agents more time to respond.
“We know it’s going to be effective,” Hernandez said. “A larger piece of infrastructure here in southern Arizona is crucial to us. We’ve seen other similar projects limit and slow down some of the traffic for us.”
‘This thing is a disaster’
But activists claim the construction fundamentally damages the landscape and culture of entire border regions, such as the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona, about 445 km west of Guadalupe Canyon.
This is where Laiken Jordahl from the Center for Biological Diversity and others have sounded the alarm at the construction through this national park in the heart of the Sonoran Desert.
The work replaces steel barriers at the international border. Environmentalists warn that the construction will greatly limit the animals’ ability to move freely and reach Quitobaquito Springs, which Jordahl says is the richest water source in 50 miles in any direction.
“This thing is a disaster,” Jordahl told CNN. “This wall will do nothing to secure the border, but it will destroy this incredible national park. It will kill the wildlife in this area.”
Earlier this year, building crews detonated explosives through part of the National Park known as Monument Hill, honored by Tohono O’odham Nation.
The Native American tribe says it is an ancestral burial ground and the final resting place for many of its ancestors.
Border Patrol officials say external environmental and archaeological monitors are on site to oversee the construction. Roy Villareal, the former Chief Border Patrol Agent in the Tucson Sector, wrote on Twitter in February that workers “have not found any burial sites or remain in the restricted detonation zone.”
The CBP says it is “committed to protecting the country’s cultural and natural resources.” The agency says it has routinely met residents throughout the process
Transformation of the border
People with property along the border have witnessed transformational changes over the past few decades.
Jim Chilton stretches across a long barbed wire fence that separates his ranch from Mexico. He wants to drive home the point that this fence is not enough.
Chilton said he even offered the federal government 10 acres of its land as a forward-looking base. “I offered it for a dollar a year. I even told them I would give you the dollar if you could not find one.”
Over the years, Chilton says he has used cameras around his property and taken a thousand pictures of what he says are camouflaged smugglers navigating through his mountainous ranch.
The 81-year-old is a fifth-generation cattle man. He says his ancestors drove cattle from Texas to this area in 1885. Chilton says he has spent several years lobbying for boundary wall construction on his land, but the construction has not been approved.
But he says he is happy that the boundary wall construction is moving closer to his property.
“We need to secure our border and we need to have a legal way to get good people into the country,” Chilton said. “We need immigrants. Immigrants are a wonderful lifeblood in our country, and we need a legal way to bring them in.”
When Kelly Kimbro sees construction workers plant the sheets of stainless steel bollard wall into the edge of her ranch – east of Chilton’s land – she often thinks back to the day in 1978, when her father stumbled upon something they had never seen before. After local authorities showed up, she said they realized it was a giant bundle of marijuana.
“We did not know what it was,” said Kimbro, 62, as she rumbled across her southeastern Arizona border ranch behind the wheel of her 1992 Ford F-350.
Forty-two years later, the same place serves as the staging site for building crews building the border in this valley.
That day long ago, the border security awakening that Kimbro has gradually observed and dramatically changed this pristine landscape triggered with each existing presidential administration.
Kimbro could not have imagined how drastically the idea of border security would develop. For about a year, she has witnessed building crews methodically raising the steel line across the San Bernardino Valley, where her family has lived for generations.
“It’s too bad for America. It’s too bad we’re like a laugh because it does not work,” said Kimbro, who believes the wall will not stop the flow of drugs and people.
Four miles of Kimbro’s 15,000-acre ranch is located on the international border. She says the construction site has devoured the lower third of her ranch. The serene tranquility of this desert border is disturbed by the rumbling engines of trucks and heavy machinery.
Kimbro says her family did not protest many years ago when the federal government brought steel barriers in Normandy into steel. They invited Border Patrol to also install two surveillance camera towers on her property, she says.
But in Kimbro’s view, the wall is meaningless. “We are 100% for border security, do not give us wrong,” said Kimbro. “I promise you it will never secure this country better than it already is safe. The Border Patrol has done that job.”