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In Arizona, contractors are rushing to put in as many miles of border wall as they can before the end of the Trump administration. Landowners and conservationists are protesting the bulldozing of pristine natural areas. And let's remember, this is all for a barrier that the incoming Biden administration is expected to cancel. NPR's John Burnett reports from the Arizona-Mexico border. And just a warning - there is offensive language in this story.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Four-hundred and eighty years ago, the conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado entered what is now modern-day Arizona. Now that spot is called the Coronado National Memorial, and today, contractors are pulverizing this protected wilderness to erect Trump's border wall.
(SOUND OF WELDER WORKING)
BURNETT: A welder repairs the bucket of an excavator that's being used to build the switchback roads zigzagging up the slopes of the Huachuca Mountains. Myles Traphagen, a biologist specializing in the Arizona borderlands, has driven here from Tucson. He parks his truck and beholds the altered landscape for the first time.
MYLES TRAPHAGEN: Wow. I wonder, like - this is almost like busy work that they're doing.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It is busy work.
TRAPHAGEN: You know? They're cutting roads into a place where no vehicle could go, not a four-wheeler. But now they're cutting into the mountain to create access to build a wall.
BURNETT: This is one of 29 construction projects that are underway from the Gulf of Mexico to Southern California. They're still going, even though Joe Biden has said there won't be another foot of wall constructed in his administration. Here in Arizona, contractors have added shifts. They're working all night long under light towers to meet Trump's goal of 450 miles of new barriers.
RON PULLIAM: There's no doubt that they're accelerating the rate of construction.
BURNETT: Ecologist Ron Pulliam has been monitoring the wall's progress on the Arizona border.
PULLIAM: They're going to try to do as much as they can in the next 50 days. And Trump wants to fulfill his promise that he's securing the border.
BURNETT: The extent of the ecological destruction down here is largely known through the drone photographs of John Kurc. He's a wedding and rock and roll photographer from Charleston, S.C., who fell in love with the Sonoran Desert. Gray hair tumbles out of a sombrero as he sets his little aircraft on the ground.
JOHN KURC: So what I'll do is I'll fly fairly close to the top of that ridge to try to determine where they're going to dynamite.
(SOUND OF DRONE FLYING)
BURNETT: Kurc spends long days out here in the desert documenting what critics call the desecration of some of the last wild places along the U.S.-Mexico border. He and Traphagen can watch a handheld screen to see what the drone camera is seeing.
KURC: Hey, Myles, take a look at this. This is something you can't see from where we are. They've already cleared the mountaintop. See how they've flattened it out? That's the actual border right here.
BURNETT: The reason the 30-foot wall, along with its bright security lights and patrol road, are outraging conservationists is because this region is considered a biodiversity hotspot. Several North American mountain ranges converge here, and it's roamed by two endangered cats, the ocelot and the jaguar. Homeland Security has waived dozens of federal environmental protections in order to erect the wall in these sensitive landscapes and avoid lawsuits.
(SOUND OF DRONE FLYING)
BURNETT: The drone returns from its flyby of the defaced mountain and descends from the brilliant blue sky like a giant insect.
(SOUND OF DRONE FLYING)
BURNETT: Kurc says he was here three months ago when it was unscarred.
KURC: And now it's - what I'm seeing is, you know, a thousand times worse. Now I'm documenting destruction versus complete wilderness areas.
BURNETT: The Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees wall construction, says work crews are fulfilling their contracts. U.S. Customs and Border Protection maintains the barrier is necessary to gain operational control of the southwest border. They say the mountainous zones, as beautiful as they may be, are used by drug and human smugglers, and the agency's mission is to stop that illegal traffic.
ART DEL CUETO: Yeah. And I know there's wildlife and all that stuff. But at the end of the day, as callous and as horrible as it sounds, I think the lives of people is a lot more important than anything else.
BURNETT: Art Del Cueto is a spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council, the agents' union.
DEL CUETO: Yeah, I think it's important to have wildlife out there. But, you know, I don't think enough research has been done to actually say, hey, if you build here, all the jaguars in the world are going to die. I think it's more of a cop-out for some people, and they use that as their little ace up their sleeve so they can prevent border security.
BURNETT: Some Arizonans are solidly in favor of the border wall in certain areas. Donald Huish is mayor of the city of Douglas that sits on the international line.
DONALD HUISH: What we used to see in the city is illegals running up and down our alleys, through our streets, chases by the Border Patrol, of course, unsafe for our local citizens. The border wall has made our community safer. It's pushed that type of activity outside our city limits.
BURNETT: Then I handed my iPhone to the mayor and showed him a picture of the demolition of nearby Guadalupe Peak, where he goes deer hunting. It was the first time he'd seen the huge gashes in the mountainside.
HUISH: Oh, no. Oh, goodness. That's hard to believe that that was the solution. That's not good.
BURNETT: Like the Douglas mayor, many locals are upset. They say the government should use high-tech surveillance in these remote areas to spot traffickers, not a massive steel and concrete barrier. The Diamond A ranch near the Arizona-New Mexico border sued the government last week. It claims the dynamiting above Guadalupe Canyon has sent car-sized boulders tumbling down onto ranch property.
Opponents also say the border wall will cause flooding. The structure crosses numerous dry creeks and riverbeds. During the rainy season, they turn into torrents that carry tons of debris that could clog the steel bollard wall and cause floodwaters to back up. Not to worry, assures CBP. Agents will unlock gates in the wall to let the floodwater pass.
(SOUND OF WHISTLE BLOWING)
BURNETT: While landowners are skeptical of the solution, crews are working around the clock pouring concrete culverts in the drainages. Valer Clark is the 80-year-old president of Cuenca Los Ojos, a land conservation group that restores ranch land in Mexico adjacent to Trump's wall.
VALER CLARK: It's horrific. I mean, it's 40 years of work that I'm seeing dry up for what? As an American, I feel ashamed.
BURNETT: Construction of the border wall through the badlands of Arizona will presumably race ahead for six more weeks. Then it is President Biden's decision when and whether to shut it down.
John Burnett, NPR News, Douglas, Ariz.
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