New border remediation may not be enough to restore Arizona Trail to what it was

Arizona Daily Star (December 26, 2021) by Danyelle Khmara

Trail runner Lydia Jennings decided to celebrate completing her doctorate with a 50-mile run on the Arizona Trail. A member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and an environmental microbiologist, she also did the run to honor 50 Indigenous scientists.

She planned to start at the U.S.-Mexico border and run north — a goal she was forced to change.

The southern terminus of the Arizona Trail, which ends at the Coronado National Memorial, was closed a year ago as construction crews built a 200-foot island of border wall in the days before President Donald Trump left office.

The trail is now set to reopen in the coming week, likely on Jan. 1, although the opening will probably be temporary, and trail advocates are concerned environmental damage from the wall construction will continue to be an issue.

The Department of Homeland Security announced on Dec. 20 that it will address issues left by unfinished border wall projects across parts of the southern border, with a large majority of projects located in the Tucson Sector.

Park officials have said no construction will take place at the southern terminus of the Arizona Trail for the next three to six months, but once construction restarts, the closure will probably resume.

The National Park Service isn’t officially announcing when the closed part of the trail will open until next week, and the plan for what sort of construction will eventually resume hasn’t been decided.

The Arizona Trail is one of 11 National Scenic Trails in the country and one of three that is complete, without any detours.

The end of the trail is now marked with access roads carved by dynamite into the mountainside and the free-standing section of wall — “an expensive, offensive art project,” says Matt Nelson, executive director of the Arizona Trail Association.

Historians believe that the terminus of the trail is where Spaniards first crossed into what is now the U.S., an event marked by the Coronado memorial marker. The wall stops just a few feet short of reaching that marker.

It’s also on Indigenous people’s ancestral land, says the Trail Association’s website, as Native Americans have inhabited Arizona for more than 10,000 years.

Not being able to start her run there was a meaningful loss to Jennings.

“Native people have always been using these different trail passages to connect our communities from south of the border to north of the border,” she said. “I’m a member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, and our tribe is a binational-border tribe. And so I really wanted to highlight that by starting at the U.S.-Mexico border.”

Other hikers also felt the loss over the last year. As Jennings was training, she ran into hikers who said they didn’t feel like they were doing the full trail because they didn’t start at the beginning.

“People just feeling disappointed that they don’t have that and then also really reflecting on what a disservice it is to this amazing trail system that attracts so many,” she said.

Wall Likely to Remain

The border wall at the terminus of the Arizona Trail is part of a burst of construction that took place in the waning weeks of Trump’s presidency, work that came to a halt when President Joe Biden took office.

Between Jan. 4 and Jan. 8, Customs and Border Protection began construction on 12 additional miles of border wall, the New York Times reported.

Although places like the Arizona Trail are protected by the National Trail System Act, the government has the power to override that federal law in the name of national security, according to The Associated Press.

Customs and Border Protection did not provide information on the cost of this specific project at the southern terminus of the Arizona Trail. But Southwest Valley Constructors, an affiliate of the construction giant Kiewit, was awarded $524 million in March of 2020 to build about 24 miles of wall in Cochise County, where the site is.

The National Park Service closed the last mile of the Arizona Trail right before the construction.

Last week, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas authorized U.S. Customs and Border Protection to use border barrier funds to address “life, safety, environmental, and remediation requirements” for border barrier projects.

A news release said the projects include but are not limited to:

  • Completing and/or installing drainage to prevent flooding.
  • Erosion control to ensure the safety and stability of structures.
  • Completing prior construction of access roads by adding guardrails, signage and integrating existing roadways.
  • Remediating temporary use areas that have been affected by construction.
  • Disposing of residual materials.
  • Closing small gaps that remain open from prior construction activities and remediating incomplete gates.
  • The border wall in Arizona has many gaps, which in some places are just a few feet or a few yards. Construction materials left when contractors suddenly stopped working are still piled up in some places in the Southern Arizona desert.

Removal of incomplete segments of wall was not listed in the border remediation projects announced Monday.

“I don’t see immediate benefits from this decision for the Arizona Trail, but I will remain hopeful,” said Nelson, with the Trail Association.

Nelson recently took U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, an Arizona Democrat, to the southern terminus of the Arizona Trail. Her team said it was a priority area for restoration, Nelson said.

Her team was able to see some of the drainage concerns the area faces due to “haphazardly constructed roads built for construction vehicles” next to the very short “hastily built” section of wall, Kirkpatrick wrote in her November newsletter to constituents.

Nelson says a border wall never made sense in that remote part of the desert that no vehicles can get to and is miles away from the nearest town.

“It is perfectly reasonable to assume that technology can be used to keep the border safe in this area without compromising scenic resources and the physical landscape,” he said.

The Arizona Trail Association would like to see that wall removed, restoration of the surrounding land and the trail reopened as soon as it can be deemed safe.

Some Ignore the Closure

Disobeying the closure of the Yaqui Ridge Trail — the southernmost mile of the Arizona Trail — is punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 or up to six months imprisonment.

But some hikers have been choosing to risk it in order to complete a trek that in some cases they planned for years. The Park Service hasn’t charged anyone who’s ignored the closure.

If trail walkers and runners disregard the closure, that’s telling the National Park Service they don’t care about their rules, said Steven Terry, a member of the Trail Association and a steward for the Rincon Mountains section of trail.

Terry hiked the entire trail in 2021, except the last 1.9 miles. Terry stopped at the Montezuma Pass parking lot, 2 miles from the terminus, although hikers can still do 1 mile of that before reaching the closure.

“If we as a community are going to disregard this closure order, it is going to make it harder when the Arizona Trail Association or a steward like myself reaches out to the Park Service to get something done and to get future trail access,” Terry said.

Terry finished the trail this month, after hiking it throughout the year in 11 separate sections. He saved the southern section for last, hoping the terminus might open.

“Did I plan to go from Utah to Mexico when I hatched this project last year? Sure I did,” Terry said. “But it was more important to do the right thing for the greater good and for the Arizona Trail Association and for the trail’s integrity itself than it was to just do something that would stoke my ego and give me some temporary likes on Instagram.”

Jake Eberspacher finished the 800-mile hike in fall of 2019, just months before the southern terminus closed. He’s also a volunteer steward for a remote part of the trail between Phoenix and Payson.

“I feel so fortunate to have done it when I did because I got to do the full trail all the way to the actual southern terminus, which is also historically significant,” he said.

When Eberspacher was there, there were just a few strands of barbed wire. But in the desert to the east he could see border wall cutting through the wild desert, stretching to the mountains far beyond.

“You can see this black line just kind of separating the desert. On either side of the wall, it’s the same vegetation,” he said. “You could tell deer would run through that landscape if the wall weren’t there. It’s one natural area, and there’s just this arbitrary line that we decided needs to go there.”

To read the article online, click here.