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A federal suit is challenging Ducey's container wall. Protesters already shut construction down

On a sunny afternoon this month in the Coronado National Forest, half a dozen protesters beat furiously on drums as a thick curl of smoke from incense wafted into the air.

Behind them, a wall of double-stacked shipping containers snaked its way across arid desert grasslands nestled at the base of the Huachuca Mountains. 

This is one piece of the the San Rafael Valley. It’s part of a handful of so-called sky islands in Arizona and Sonora that are celebrated for their vibrant biodiversity. Animals like mountain lions, white-tailed deer, javelina, even the occasional jaguar, have been spotted crossing the border in the area to access food and water. 

But in October, contractors hired by Gov. Doug Ducey began using bulldozers to widen the road, cranes to stack the containers, and sheet metal to fill in gaps where the ground is too uneven for them to lie flat. A spool of razor wire now runs atop the metal containers in some areas. 

This landscape used to cross almost seamlessly into Mexico — except for a squat line of vehicle barriers and a thin barbed wire fence marking the border. 

Federal agencies including the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Reclamation have said the project is happening illegally on federal land, but had not intervened to stop the work on the ground. 

That changed last week, when the Department of Justice asked a U.S. District Court to order Arizona to stop building and remove the containers. But by then, a tiny pod of local protesters had already brought work to a standstill.

I joined Russ McSpadden, Southwest advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, on a visit there this month. Golden blades of tall grass swayed in the breeze on our right. More than three miles of stacked shipping containers were on our left.  

“We’re on the border wall road, driving along Governor Ducey’s shipping container junk pile here,” he said. 

The state was slated to cost more than $90 million on the Cochise County project, according to a contract drawn up between the state and Florida-based construction firm, AshBritt Inc. 

It's the second shipping container wall Arizona has hired AshBritt to undertake on federal land this year. The first was installed along the border in Yuma earlier this year. All told, more than $123 million in taxpayer funds were earmarked for the projects.

McSpadden says the environment here will also pay a price. 

“Waters from the Huachuca Mountains north of the border here flow south across the border and feed these really incredible wetlands, there’s beavers there, almost 400 species of migratory birds,” he said. 

State officials have insisted the builds are needed to safeguard the border. But both projects are taking place on the Roosevelt Reservation — it’s a 60-foot buffer zone that runs along the entire Arizona border and is under federal jurisdiction.

But when federal agencies said the projects were happening illegally, state authorities filed suit to allow them to stay, arguing an increase in migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border constituted an “invasion.”

The work went on unimpeded in Cochise County as that legal battle played out Environmental activist Kate Scott lives less than an hour from the site's rolling grassland and mature oak woodlands.

“This is very very painful for us, we love this land, it’s the landscape of our soul,” she said. 

Last month, Scott and other locals decided to take matters into their own hands. 

“We merely stepped into the road with the banner strung across on the road and with other people with signage. And they literally just halted, I mean, in like, almost in mid turn. And he just sat there for probably 30 minutes idling,” she said. 

It worked for a while. But then, Scott says crews tried to evade the protests by starting construction earlier in the morning. Then one night this month, crews started working in the middle of the night, in near-freezing temperatures. 

“So that was like, OK, so we have to camp and we literally just said, who can stay? Who can bring camping equipment?” she said.

They’ve been here ever since. Some have traveled back and forth to replenish supplies. Others have spent days in campers.

Ary Lavizzo, an artist and activist in Tucson, says he came because he wants to carry on a legacy. 

“This is the legacy that Doug Ducey’s children will have to inherit. But when my children ask me what was going on, I would tell them that I was doing my best to stop it,” he said. 

It looks to have worked. Though the project was slated to cover about 10 miles of Forest Service land, contractors only made it across about three before protesters brought work to a halt. The state can’t remove protesters from the area because they’re on public, federal land.

Activists say no container has been placed since early December. On a recent morning, a few protesters sat perched atop the last one. A few security guards were stationed in front of parked construction vehicles. But workers were nowhere to be seen. 

Further down the road, Center for Biological Diversity director Kieran Suckling was dressed from head to toe in a fuzzy jaguar costume. 

“Ducey’s border wall is easily crossed by humans, and easily crossed by drug dealers,” he said, a thin orange blow torch dangling from his hand. 

But not by big animals native to the area, he says.

“So I’m gonna make a wildlife crossing, with my blowtorch,” he said. 

In its lawsuit filed against the project last week, the Biden administration called on the state to stop construction, remove existing containers and begin environmental remediation at state expense. 

In a letter responding to the suit, Ducey’s office said the containers were always meant to be temporary, and the state would help remove them if the federal government says when it plans to fill the border wall gaps. 

"We said in the beginning when this project began in Yuma that if we have to remove the containers because the federal government is going to continue border barrier construction, then we would happily do it," said Ducey's spokesperson, C.J. Karamargin. "That's been our view since the beginning."

The letter also acknowledged that work had stopped. Scott and other activists have tracked dozens of containers leaving the storage facility and being dropped off in Tucson. The governor’s office confirmed to the Arizona Daily Star that the containers were being transported, but didn’t say why.

Scott and other activists say it’s a major win. But. questions still remain. 

Gov.-elect Katie Hobbs has said she will stop construction, but hasn’t said if, or how, remediation and removal will happen. Josselyn Berry, spokesperson for Hobbs' transition team, called the containers an "ill-conceived political stunt," but wouldn't say whether the governor intended to take existing containers down. 

"Governor-Elect Hobbs is monitoring the situation and remains committed to bringing resources to our border to provide meaningful and compassionate solutions for Arizonans and immigrants experiencing the consequences of federal inaction," she said in an email.

Suckling says the state should be responsible for paying for remediation. 

“If I were to drive my truck out in that field and trash it, and the forest service had to fix it up, they would hunt me down and charge me, and they should do the same thing for Doug Ducey or the state of Arizona,” he said. 

Suckling says he’s confident Hobbs will do away with the project. But activists will continue to monitor the site to make sure she does. 

More stories from KJZZ

Alisa Reznick is a senior field correspondent covering stories across southern Arizona and the borderlands for the Tucson bureau of KJZZ's Fronteras Desk.