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 5-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.
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. 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 springs and surrounding desert wetlands are just 200 feet from the border, where crews plan to bring in earthmoving equipment to install the 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.
The Tohono O’odham Nation, which used to inhabit a large swath of the Sonoran Desert, opposes any new border fence construction.
“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,” said Chairman Ned Norris Jr.