Shared from the 9/18/2019 The Denver Post eEdition
By Juliet Eilperin and Nick Miroff The Washington Post
Bulldozers and excavators rushing to install President Donald Trump’s border barrier 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 administration’s plan to convert an existing 5-foot-high vehicle barrier into 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.
Unlike concerns about the barrier project that have come from private landowners, churches, communities and advocacy groups, these new warnings about potential destruction of historic sites come from within the government itself.
The National Park Service’s 123-page report, obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, emerges from a well-respected federal agency within the Department of the Interior while the Department of Homeland Security and the White House push ahead with their construction plans. While the government scrambles to analyze vulnerable sites as heavy equipment moves in, the administration also faces external challenges seeking to block the use of eminent domain to seize land and lawsuits asking courts to cease work in and around wildlife refuges and other protected lands.
New construction began last month within the Organ Pipe Cactus monument, an internationally recognized biosphere reserve 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 earth-moving 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.
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.