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Border fence construction could destroy archaeological sites, park service finds

  • Author: Juliet Eilperin, Nick Miroff, The Washington Post
  • Updated: September 17
  • Published September 17

The U.S.-Mexico border barrier that runs along Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Efforts to install President Donald Trump's border fence could damage archaeological sites there, according to a government assessment. (Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford)

The bulldozers and excavators rushing to install President Donald Trump’s border fence could damage or destroy up to 22 archaeological sites within Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in coming months, according to an internal National Park Service report obtained by The Washington Post.

The 123-page report, completed in July and obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, indicates that the administration's plan to convert an existing five-foot-high vehicle barrier to a 30-foot steel edifice could pose irreparable harm to unexcavated remnants of ancient Sonoran Desert peoples. Experts identified these risks as U.S. Customs and Border Protection seeks to fast-track the pace of construction to meet Trump's campaign pledge of completing 500 miles of barrier by next year's election.

New construction began last month within the internationally recognized biosphere reserve, a national monument southwest of Phoenix with nearly 330,000 acres of congressionally designated wilderness. The work is part of a 43-mile span of fencing that also traverses the adjacent Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.

With the president demanding weekly updates on construction progress and tweeting out drone footage of new fencing through the desert, administration officials have said they are under extraordinary pressure to meet Trump’s construction goals.

The Department of Homeland Security has taken advantage of a 2005 law to waive several federal requirements that could have slowed and possibly stopped the barrier's advance in the stretch in Arizona, including the Archeological Resources Protection Act, the National Historic Preservation Act and the Endangered Species Act.

The Organ Pipe Cactus area has been one of the busiest along the border for migrant crossings this year, an influx that includes large groups of adults with children walking through the desert to surrender to U.S. agents, typically seeking humanitarian protections.

Some archaeological features along the border already have suffered damage as Border Patrol agents zoom through the desert in pursuit of migrants and smugglers in all-terrain vehicles, according to federal officials and two experts who have conducted research in the region.

Environmental groups have fought unsuccessfully to halt construction in the protected areas, arguing that more-imposing barriers could disrupt wildlife migration corridors and threaten the survival of imperiled species.

But to date there has been little mention of the potential damage to archaeological sites, where stone tools, ceramic shards and other pre-Colombian artifacts are extremely well-preserved in the arid environment. Desert-dwelling peoples have populated the area for at least 16,000 years, particularly in the area around the oasis of Quitobaquito Springs in the national monument, one of the few places where the endangered Quitobaquito pupfish and Sonoyta mud turtle still live in the wild.

The oasis was part of a prehistoric trade route, the Old Salt Trail, where northern Mexico commodities including salt, obsidian, and seashells were plentiful, according to the Park Service. The traders were followed by Spanish missionaries, western settlers and other travelers and nomads who came to drink.

The springs and surrounding desert wetlands are just 200 feet from the border, where crews plan to bring in heavy earthmoving equipment to install the giant steel barriers. Scientists also have raised concerns that the springs could dry up if crews pump groundwater from the area for the barrier's concrete base.

CBP officials said the agency has looked at "most" of the archaeological sites identified in the Park Service report and found just five that are within the 60-foot-wide strip of land on the U.S. side of the wall where the government will erect the structure, an area of federal land known as the Roosevelt Reservation, which was set aside along the border in California, Arizona and New Mexico. Of those five, officials said, one had a "lithic scatter" - remnants of stone tools and other culturally relevant artifacts.

Construction crews do not yet have a plan to begin work at that location, CBP officials said, noting that the agency has had discussions with the Park Service about collecting and analyzing fragments of historic significance from that site.

"We've been working very closely with the park," said a CBP official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the administration's plan for building near archaeological sites along the border. The officials said they have not delayed or otherwise altered their construction plans to conduct more detailed surveys or excavations in the area.

Officials said crews with earthmoving equipment have started installing barriers in a two-mile section east of the border crossing at Lukeville, Arizona, a particularly busy stretch for illegal crossings.

CBP officials acknowledged that trucks and earthmoving equipment driving through the fragile desert risk harming sites outside the specific border construction zone. The officials said they are following Park Service guidance as to where they can drive.

With CBP, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and their construction contractors under pressure from the White House, federal land in the West has become the easiest place to quickly add fencing. There are few private landowners in the desert terrain outside of Texas, and it is a far easier place to build than along the winding river banks of the Rio Grande.

The U.S.-Mexico border barrier in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, in Ajo, Ariz. (Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford)

At least a dozen Native American tribes claim a connection to the lands within Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, especially near Quitobaquito. The group includes the Tohono O’odham Nation, which used to inhabit a large swath of the Sonoran Desert and whose reservation lies north of the park’s boundaries. Members of the Nation - who have revived the practice of following the Old Salt Trail - have protested the idea of any new construction in an area once inhabited by their ancestors, the Hohokam, who lived in the area between 200 and 1,400 A.D.

Tohono O'odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris Jr. said that his tribe remains opposed to any new border fence construction.

"We've historically lived in this area from time immemorial," he said. "We feel very strongly that this particular wall will desecrate this area forever. I would compare it to building a wall over your parents' graveyards. It would have the same effect."

Rick Martynec, an archaeologist who is conducting volunteer surveys of sites within the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge along with his wife Sandy, said that researchers have not had time to properly evaluate the area now targeted for construction.

"Quitobaquito, as we know it, may be destroyed before anyone has had a chance to evaluate the consequences of the current actions," Martynec said. "What's the rush?"

He noted that relevant sites in the monument "include evidence of hunting, farming and home sites" along with "historic cemeteries." He added that the adjacent National Wildlife Refuge has other archaeological artifacts, including a rare intaglio figure spanning several hundred yards that was likely created for a ritual.

The Martynecs were doing research in the refuge at one point and saw a Border Patrol agent on a four-wheeler motoring up a road on which the agency was not authorized to drive, "right over a huge roasting pit" used by an ancient community, he recalled. They later checked to see if an incident report had been filed - as would be required if the agency was traversing that land - but none had been, Martynec said.

In the Park Service report summarizing the results of a survey of 11.3 miles along the U.S.-Mexico border, the agency's archaeologists note that previous research had "identified and recorded 17 archaeological sites which likely will be wholly or partially destroyed by forthcoming border fence construction." The park experts, who conducted their survey in June, identified another five archaeological sites that also would be imperiled and would deserve to be protected under a National Register of Historic Places designation.

The report notes that staffers were unable to complete a survey of the entire length of the U.S. side of the border that lies within the monument's boundaries. Park Service archaeologists plan to survey another 1.7 mile section of the park's southern border later this month.

Kevin Dahl, Arizona senior program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, said that under normal circumstances the agency would take steps to protect archaeological sites under its purview, which could involve a lengthy excavation process if necessary.

CBP has announced plans to complete this section of barriers through the national monument by January. Those plans call for new fencing in five or six "non-contiguous areas," including areas within the monument where the archelological sites are found, agency officials said. Sections of new barrier through the area are not necessarily contiguous because the terrain might be too steep or mountainous to install a single, unbroken span of fencing.

The project within the monument includes a new steel bollard fence running continuously for 9.1 miles, and the fencing will be reinforced with an 8- to 10 foot-deep concrete-and-steel foundation.

"Archaeology takes time, and they have a deadline," Dahl said, referring to CBP. "Putting a wall there is insane. This is just one more reason why ramming this wall through, using illegal, unconstitutional money, is damaging to these public resources. We're destroying what the wall is supposed to protect."

National Park Service spokesman Jeremy Barnum said the agency's mission "is to preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations." But he noted that some of the parks along the U.S.-Mexico border have been subjected to "cross-border illegal activities" and that the agency has coordinated with Homeland Security to address the issue.

In 2002, a park ranger at Organ Pipe was shot and killed as he pursued members of a drug cartel hit squad who had fled to the United States from Mexico. The Park Service closed more than half the monument to the public the following year, but reopened it entirely in September 2014.

"The National Park Service appreciates the role of an integrated border security approach and values the ongoing interagency efforts to address the multidimensional issue," Barnum said.

An archaeologist working for a CBP contractor, Northland Research, is on site every day when crews are working on the barrier fence, according to federal and tribal officials. The firm referred requests for comment to the government agency.

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