Construction threatens the archaeological sites in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, according to an internal National Park Service report obtained by The Washington Post.
The administration’s plan to convert an existing 5ft-high vehicle barrier into a 30ft steel edifice could pose irreparable harm to unexcavated remnants of ancient Sonoran Desert peoples.
Experts identified these risks as US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) seeks to fast-track the pace of construction to meet the US presidents’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 analyse 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 recognised 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 Mr 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 Archaeological 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 US 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 greater barriers could disrupt wildlife migration corridors and threaten the survival of imperilled species.
But to date, there has been little mention of the potential damage to archaeological sites, where stone tools, ceramic shards and other pre-Columbian artefacts are extremely well-preserved in the arid environment.
Desert-dwelling peoples have populated the area for at least 16,000 years, particularly around the oasis of Quitobaquito Springs in the national monument, one of the few places where the Quitobaquito pupfish and the endangered Sonoyta mud turtle still live in the wild.
The oasis was part of a prehistoric trade route, the Old Salt Trail, where northern Mexican commodities including salt, obsidian and seashells were plentiful, according to the Park Service.
The traders were followed by Spanish missionaries, Western settlers, and other travellers 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 instal 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 has looked at “most” of the archaeological sites identified in the Park Service report and found just five that are within the 60ft-wide strip of land on the US side of the border where the government will erect the structure, an area of federal land known as the Roosevelt Reservation.
Of those five, one had a “lithic scatter” – remnants of stone tools and other culturally relevant artefacts.
Construction crews do not yet have a plan to begin work at that location, CBP officials said, noting that the agency has had discussions with the Park Service about collecting and analysing fragments of historic significance from that site.
CHP members said the agency has not delayed or otherwise altered their construction plans to conduct more detailed surveys or excavations in the area.
With CBP, the US Army Corps of Engineers and their construction contractors under pressure from the White House, federal land in the West has become the easiest place to quickly add fencing.
There are few private landowners in the desert terrain outside Texas, and it is a far easier place to build than along the winding riverbanks of the Rio Grande.
At least a dozen Native American tribes claim a connection to the lands within Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, especially near Quitobaquito. They include the Tohono O’odham Nation, which used to inhabit a large swath of the Sonoran Desert and whose reservation lies north of the park’s boundaries.
Members of the nation – who have revived the practice of following the Old Salt Trail – have protested the idea of any new construction in an area once inhabited by their ancestors, the Hohokam, who lived in the area between 200 and 1,400 AD.
Tohono O’odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris Jr said his tribe remains opposed to any new border fence construction.
“We’ve historically lived in this area from time immemorial,” he said. “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.”
Rick Martynec, an archaeologist who is conducting volunteer surveys of sites within the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, said researchers have not had time to properly evaluate the area now targeted for construction.
“Quitobaquito, as we know it, may be destroyed before anyone has had a chance to evaluate the consequences of the current actions,” Mr Martynec said. “What’s the rush?”
He noted that relevant sites in the monument “include evidence of hunting, farming and home sites” along with “historic cemeteries”. He added that the adjacent wildlife refuge has other archaeological artefacts, including a rare intaglio figure spanning several hundred yards that was probably created for a ritual.
The archaeologist and his wife were doing research in the refuge at one point and saw a Border Patrol agent on a four-wheeler motoring up a road on which the agency was not authorised to drive, “right over a huge roasting pit” used by an ancient community.
They checked to see if an incident report had been filed – as Qwould be required if the agency was traversing that land – but none had been, Mr Martynec said.
In the Park Service report summarising the results of a survey of 11.3 miles along the US-Mexico border, the agency’s archaeologists note that previous research had “identified and recorded 17 archaeological sites which likely will be wholly or partially destroyed by forthcoming border fence construction”.
The park experts, who conducted their survey in June, identified five more archaeological sites that also would be imperilled and would deserve to be protected under a National Register of Historic Places designation.
The report notes that staffers were unable to complete a survey of the entire length of the US side of the border that lies within the monument’s boundaries.
Park Service archaeologists plan to survey another 1.7-mile section of the park’s southern border later this month.
Kevin Dahl, Arizona senior program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, said that under normal circumstances, the agency would take steps to protect archaeological sites under its purview, including a lengthy excavation process if necessary.
CBP has announced plans to complete this section of barriers through the national monument by January, including a new steel bollard fence running continuously for 9.1 miles, reinforced with an 8- to 10-ft deep concrete and steel foundation.
“Archaeology takes time, and they have a deadline,” Mr Dahl said. “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 National Park Service appreciates the role of an integrated border security approach and values the ongoing interagency efforts to address the multidimensional issue.”
An archaeologist working for a CBP contractor, Northland Research, is on site every day when crews are working on the barrier fence, according to federal and tribal officials.
The firm referred requests for comment to the government agency.
The Washington Post
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