Myles Traphagen kept his eye on the horizon as he maneuvered his pickup truck down a treacherous sandy road in Cabeza Prieta, Arizona’s largest wilderness. Bordered by the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument to the east, Cabeza Prieta sits on the southwestern edge of the state. The reserve, which was founded in 1939, is known for its beauty and desert wildlife, which includes western diamondback rattlesnakes, Sonoran pronghorns, and long-nosed bats. It is, according to the National Park Service, the “continent’s most isolated international border”. Threatening mountains, some made of lava, others of granite, cleave the rugged land. They give Cabeza Prieta its name – Spanish for “black heads”.
Halfway down a road leading to the border with Mexico, Traphagen stopped his truck. A burly man of fifty-four, with thick dark hair and a shaggy beard, he held up a pair of binoculars to his eyes. “I think that’s it,” he said. Traphagen pointed to a dark, twisting line that, from a distance, looked like a stain on the earth: the border wall. “It’s like you come here to see it and you don’t want to see it anymore,” he added. A trained biologist, Traphagen has spent the past four years mapping the four hundred and fifty-eight miles where the Trump administration has erected a wall from Texas to California – a barrier he says is having a disastrous impact on the environment. . “Animals have been migrating this way for tens of thousands of years,” he said. “If we cut that population, we’re essentially changing the evolutionary history of North America.”
Behind Traphagen, in a gray SUV, was John Kurc, a photographer in his sixties who once traveled with rock stars. Kurc, who wears her hair in a low bun, spends her days tracking the wall’s environmental damage, from polluting waterways to disrupting migration patterns. “I can see it meandering over the mountains to the west,” he told Traphagen, via handheld radio. The two men crossed a desert expanse dotted with ocotillos and towering saguaro cacti. The Tinajas Altas, one of the area’s granitic mountain ranges, loomed in the distance, dwarfing a thirty-foot-tall barrier that bisected the ridge. “Like we need a wall when there’s already the best natural wall you can have,” Traphagen said.
Unlike Texas, where the vast majority of properties bordering Mexico are privately owned, nearly all border areas in Arizona are federally owned. This is where the Trump administration, likely to avoid lengthy court battles, has focused its wall-building. During Trump’s four years in office, half of the wall’s construction took place in Arizona, and his administration completed nearly eight miles of what it had planned in the state. Since most of the crossings take place in Texas, the wall in Arizona, according to Traphagen, causes more damage to the environment than to smuggling rings. In total, in the name of building the border wall, the Trump administration waived more than fifty environmental laws and regulations. “These are all the major environmental laws that have ever been passed,” Traphagen said.
On the day Joe Biden took office, he revoked the emergency declaration Trump had used to justify building barriers, following through on a campaign promise not to build “another foot” of wall. But, more than a year later, the construction continues. Republican governors are building new sections of barriers across their states with hundreds of millions of dollars in government and private funding. Federal regulations have delayed attempts by the Biden administration to cancel many wall-building contracts issued by Trump in his final weeks in office. And liberal Democrats, environmentalists and landowners near the border say the Biden administration is not acting aggressively enough to reverse the damage caused by the wall. “They’re riding the fence on this,” Traphagen said.
In Congress, divisions among Democrats have slowed Biden’s efforts to end his predecessor’s project for good. After taking office, Biden attempted to reallocate several billion dollars of funds that Congress appropriated during the Trump era to build an additional wall. By law, the president is required to spend that money on a “barrier system” at the border, and Congress has not canceled or reallocated the money. As a result, Customs and Border Protection is taking steps to build eighty-six miles of wall in the Rio Grande Valley using funds earmarked under Trump. Texas environmentalists said they hope congressional Democrats reallocate the money before the new wall is built. But a former senior White House official predicted that conservative Senate Democrats would likely oppose such a move. “You have enough moderates who will argue, ‘We need a border fence,'” the official said. “The idea that something is better than nothing.”
The Biden administration has also moved to minimize the danger caused by unfinished construction by filling gaps in the wall left by Trump in Arizona, Texas and California. The former official said: “It ended up being a legal conclusion that part of the construction had to be completed or it would create legal risk.” The former official regretted that the administration failed to appoint a political liaison to oversee wall-related initiatives, an oversight that has left many border residents unclear about the White House’s intentions. “There was a question about who owned it. It was a problem in all immigration matters,” the official said. “And that shows a lack of political awareness about the border region. It is a lack of political respect for border communities.
Asked for comment, a White House official said, “On his first day in office, President Biden suspended construction of a wall along the southern border, and every day since we have been working to clean up the mess left by the previous administration, including returning, where possible, the land it seized, returning the money it took from our military, and working closely with border communities , stakeholders and tribal communities to address pressing life, safety and environmental issues.
Republicans, meanwhile, are extending Trump’s barrier. Last summer, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who is running for re-election in November, said he would use public and private funds to resume construction of the border wall. The governor of Texas obtained one thousand seven hundred unused wall panels from a federal agency that distributes surplus materials. Following Trump’s playbook, he declared a state of disaster on the border and reallocated public funds to build barriers that the legislature had originally designated for other uses. So far, Abbott has secured more than $1 billion in public funds and $54 million in private donations.
In Arizona, Governor Doug Ducey and state lawmakers are hoping to use somewhere between fifty and seven hundred million dollars in public funds to build additional barriers there. Across the Southwest, Republican officials continue to view the power of immigration as a campaign issue. “Fear,” Kurc said, “is very profitable in the United States.”
Kurc’s first visit to the area, in 2019, had little to do with the wall: he was there to photograph the Rolling Stones. Curious to see for himself the “invasion” Trump kept talking about, he traveled to the border town of Douglas, Arizona. “I took a dirt road and drove up to the wall,” he recalls. “There was no border patrol, no Mexican army, no drug traffickers, no migrants coming. I started filming, and I was like, ‘Look, this is not what we are told.’ “Kurc, who has adult children and was newly single, returned home to Charleston, South Carolina, put a mattress in the trunk of his car and drove back to the border with two cameras and no return date. “I was so intrigued by the non-invasion that I came back the following month,” he said.
Shortly after, Kurc and Traphagen met for the first time, in Guadalupe Canyon, about four hundred miles east of Cabeza Prieta. Traphagen had been working along the border for decades. Originally from California, he began his conservation career in southeastern Arizona in the 1990s. He met his wife, Martha Gomez Sapiens, an environmentalist, there, and the two had a son. When Trump’s border wall construction reached Arizona, Traphagen began advising a coalition of local ranchers and scientists on its impact. At that time, Kurc was in Guadalupe Canyon taking photos of the landscape with a drone, when he heard an explosion. For the next few days, he watched workers and engineers drill holes in the rock, place explosives in them, and set off three or four explosions a day.
During a visit to the canyon, Kurc recalled what the area looked like at that time. Hundreds of RVs filled the site. Using backhoes and bulldozers, workers dug roads leading to several wall construction sites. “It was like a huge city,” he said. The new barrier has blocked off large parts of critical habitat for various species in the southern Peloncillo Mountains, the only link between the Rockies and the Sierra Madre Occidental.
It is estimated that three hundred and fifty miles of barriers were completed in the last year of the administration. Multi-million dollar contracts were awarded until the last days of Trump’s term. Many observers believed Trump was trying to make it difficult for his successor to unravel his project. The new president would face hundreds of millions of dollars in payments to contractors. “It was a wild ride,” Kurc recalled, referring to the pace of construction under Trump. “There were even teams that worked at night.” During Biden’s inauguration, Kurc observed the final blast of dynamite on the border.