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Climate & Environment

Trump’s border wall reportedly threatens 22 archaeological sites in Arizona

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is named for the long, thin cacti that dot Arizona’s desert landscape.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is named for the long, thin cacti that dot southwestern Arizona’s desert landscape.
(Joshua Bo / National Park Service)

The construction of President Trump’s border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border could damage — or even destroy — up to 22 archaeological sites at the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona, according to a report from the National Park Service that was obtained by the Washington Post.

The 123-page internal report dated July 2019 summarized the findings from a survey of 11.3 miles of land along the border in southwestern Arizona that experts said is home to an “abundance of natural and cultural resources unique to the Sonoran Desert.” The report said previous research from the agency recorded 17 archaeological sites that “likely will be wholly or partially destroyed by forthcoming border fence construction." A more recent survey in June identified five more sites that would be affected.

The border wall construction on the land overseen by the National Park Service, as described in the report, would replace existing barriers with taller steel fences that are anchored by deep concrete and steel foundations. It would also create new roads and improve existing ones along the U.S. side of the border, and include installation of surveillance equipment. That construction, archaeologists warn in the report, means on-site “cultural and natural resources are imperiled.”

The Washington Post reported that the Department of Homeland Security has relied on a 2005 law to waive federal requirements — including the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, the National Historic Preservation Act and the Endangered Species Act — that could have slowed and even stopped the barrier’s construction on the lands in Arizona.

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The Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is named for the long, thin cacti that dot the desert landscape. It is designated as an international biosphere reserve, meaning it serves as an example of an intact Sonoran Desert ecosystem that scientists can reference to determine the impact of humans in the area. The history of humans in the region traces back at least 10,500 years, the agency reports. The report said previous surveys of the land did not test for potentially buried archaeological deposits at sites such as habitation areas, rock shelters, camp sites and trails.

“It is probable that significant, presently-unrecorded surface-level and buried archaeological deposits persist ... and we must assume that all such unrecorded deposits will be destroyed over the course of ensuing border wall construction,” the report said, citing that artifacts discovered at the sites have ties to ancient nomadic peoples and Native American groups, among others.

The Washington Post reports that at least a dozen Native American groups have ties to the lands within the monument. This includes the Tohono O’odham Nation, whose reservation borders the park’s boundaries.

“We’ve historically lived in this area from time immemorial,” Tohono O’odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris Jr. told the Post. “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. It would have the same effect.”

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The report ultimately recommends that the five newly discovered archaeological sites be protected by a National Register of Historic Places designation and that all unsurveyed areas of the national monument’s southern boundary be reviewed “as soon as is possible, in light of impending border fence construction along the park’s entire 30-mile southern boundary, entailing ground disturbance across the whole, 60-foot wide Roosevelt Reservation.”

The construction of a wall along the nearly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border has been one of President Trump’s signature promises, and one that he has aggressively pursued. When Trump was on the campaign trail, he vowed to erect a southern border wall to block people from illegally crossing into the U.S. But the wall project has seen little headway, largely because of the fight between the White House and lawmakers over funding the project.

Senate Democrats recently announced they will force a vote in Congress in an attempt to reverse President Trump’s national emergency declaration that authorized the use of money from other parts of the federal budget for the construction of a border wall.

Trump has continued to push for the border wall’s construction as he campaigns for reelection in 2020. This urgency includes reportedly going as far as telling officials that he would pardon them if they’re convicted of breaking any laws in the rush to complete several hundred miles of the barrier ahead of the election.


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