Myles Traphagen kept his eye on the horizon as he maneuvered his pickup truck down a treacherous sand road in Cabeza Prieta, Arizona’s largest wilderness area. Bordered by Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument to the east, Cabeza Prieta sits on the state’s southwestern edge. The preserve, which was founded in 1939, is known for its beauty and its desert wildlife, which includes Western diamondback rattlesnakes, Sonoran pronghorn, and lesser long-nosed bats. It is, according to the National Park Service, the “loneliest international boundary on the continent.” Looming mountains, some made of lava, others of granite, cleave the rugged land. They give Cabeza Prieta its name—Spanish for “dark heads.”
Halfway down a road leading to the border with Mexico, Traphagen stopped his truck. A burly man of fifty-four, with thick brown hair and a scruffy beard, he raised a pair of binoculars to his eyes. “I think that’s it,” he said. Traphagen was pointing to a winding dark line that, from a distance, looked like a stain on the earth: the border wall. “It’s like you come down here to see it and then you don’t want to see it,” he added. A biologist by training, Traphagen has spent the past four years mapping the four hundred and fifty-eight miles where the Trump Administration erected a wall from Texas to California—a barrier that he warns is having a disastrous impact on the environment. “Animals have been migrating through this route for tens of thousands of years,” he said. “If we cut off this population, we’re essentially altering the evolutionary history of North America.”
Driving behind Traphagen, in a gray S.U.V., was John Kurc, a photographer in his sixties who once travelled with rock stars. Kurc, who wears his hair in a low bun, spends his days tracking the wall’s environmental damage, from waterway pollution to disruptions of migration patterns. “I can see it snaking over the mountains off to the west,” he told Traphagen, via a handheld radio. The two men drove through an expanse of desert dotted with ocotillos and towering saguaro cacti. The Tinajas Altas, one of the area’s granite mountain ranges, appeared in the distance, dwarfing a thirty-foot-tall stretch of barrier that bisected the ridge. “Like we needed to have a wall when there’s already the best natural wall you could ever have,” Traphagen said.
Unlike in Texas, where the vast majority of properties bordering Mexico are privately owned, almost all border areas in Arizona belong to the federal government. This is where the Trump Administration, likely to avoid protracted court battles, focussed its wall construction. During Trump’s four years in office, half of the wall building took place in Arizona, and his Administration completed all but eighteen miles of what it planned in the state. Since most crossings take place in Texas, the wall in Arizona, Traphagen contends, is doing more damage to the environment than to smuggling networks. All told, in the name of building the border wall, the Trump Administration waived more than fifty environmental laws and regulations. “It’s every major environmental act that’s ever been passed,” Traphagen said.
On the day Joe Biden took office, he revoked the emergency declaration that Trump used to justify barrier construction, following through on a campaign promise not to build “another foot” of wall. But, more than a year later, construction continues. Republican governors are in the process of building new sections of barriers in their states with hundreds of millions of dollars in government and private funding. Federal regulations have delayed attempts by the Biden Administration to cancel numerous wall-construction contracts issued by Trump in his final weeks in office. And liberal Democrats, environmentalists, and landowners near the border say that the Biden Administration is not moving aggressively enough to reverse the damage caused by the wall. “They are riding the fence on this,” Traphagen said.
In Congress, divisions among Democrats have slowed Biden’s efforts to permanently end his predecessor’s project. After taking office, Biden tried to reallocate several billion dollars in funds that Congress had appropriated during the Trump-era to build additional wall. By law, the President is required to spend that money on a “barrier system” at the border, and Congress has not rescinded or repurposed the money. As a result, Customs and Border Protection is taking steps toward the construction of eighty-six miles of wall in the Rio Grande Valley using funds appropriated under Trump. Environmentalists in Texas have said that they hope Democrats in Congress will repurpose the money before the new wall is actually built. But a former senior White House official predicted that conservative Democrats in the Senate would likely oppose such a move. “You have enough moderates who are going to argue, ‘We need some border barrier,’ ” the official said. “An idea of something being better than nothing.”
The Biden Administration also decided to minimize the hazard caused by unfinished construction by filling gaps in the wall left by Trump in Arizona, Texas, and California. The former official said, “It ended up being a legal conclusion that some of the construction was going to have to be finished, or else it would create a legal risk.” The former official regretted that the Administration hasn’t appointed a political liaison to oversee initiatives related to the wall—an oversight that left many border residents unclear about the White House’s intentions. “There was a question about who owned it. That was a problem across immigration issues,” the official said. “And it speaks to a lack of political awareness about the border region. It’s a lack of political respect for border communities.”
Asked for comment, a White House official said, “On his first day in office, President Biden paused construction of a wall along the Southern border, and every day since we have been working to clean up the mess the prior Administration left behind, including by returning, where possible, the land it seized, returning the money it took from our military, and working closely with border communities, stakeholders, and Tribal communities to address urgent life, safety, and environmental issues.”
Republicans, meanwhile, are extending Trump’s barrier. Last summer, the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, who is running for reëlection this November, said that he would use state and private funding to resume border-wall construction. The Texas governor has obtained seventeen hundred unused wall panels from a federal agency that distributes surplus material. Following Trump’s playbook, he has declared a state of disaster on the border, and reallocated state funds for barrier construction which the legislature had originally designated for other uses. So far, Abbott has secured more than a billion dollars in state funds and fifty-four million dollars in private donations.
In Arizona, Governor Doug Ducey and state legislators hope to use somewhere between fifty and seven hundred million dollars of public funds for additional barrier construction there. Across the Southwest, Republican officials continue to see the potency of immigration as a campaign issue. “Fear,” Kurc said, “is very profitable in the United States.”
Kurc’s first visit to the area, in 2019, had little to do with the wall: he was there to photograph the Rolling Stones. Curious to see for himself the “invasion” that Trump kept talking about, he visited the border town of Douglas, Arizona. “I took a dirt road and drove right up to the wall,” he recalled. “There was no Border Patrol, no Mexican Army, no drug smugglers, no migrants coming over. I started videotaping, and I was, like, ‘Look, this is not what we’re being told.’ ” Kurc, who has adult children and was newly single, returned to his home, in Charleston, South Carolina, put a mattress in the trunk of his car, and drove back to the border with two cameras and no return date in mind. “I was so intrigued by the non-invasion that I came back the next month,” he said.
Soon afterward, Kurc and Traphagen met for the first time, at Guadalupe Canyon, some four hundred miles east of Cabeza Prieta. Traphagen had been working along the border for decades. A California native, he started his conservation career in southeastern Arizona, in the nineteen-nineties. He met his wife, Martha Gomez Sapiens, an ecologist, there, and the two had a son. When Trump’s border-wall construction reached Arizona, Traphagen began advising a coalition of local ranchers and scientists about its impact. Around that time, Kurc was in Guadalupe Canyon taking pictures of the landscape with a drone, when he heard an explosion. For the next several days, he watched workers and engineers drill holes in the rock, place explosives there, and set off three or four blasts a day.
On a visit to the canyon, Kurc recalled what the area looked like during that time. Hundreds of R.V.s. filled the site. Using backhoes and bulldozers, workers carved out roads leading to multiple wall-construction sites. “This was like a huge city,” he said. The new barrier blocked large portions of a critical habitat for various species in the southern Peloncillo Mountains—the only link between the Rockies and the Sierra Madre Occidental.
An estimated three hundred and fifty miles of barriers were completed in the final year of the Administration. Multimillion-dollar contracts were awarded up until the last days of Trump’s term. Many observers believed that Trump was trying to make it difficult for his successor to unravel his project. The new President would face hundreds of millions of dollars in payouts to contractors. “This was a mad rush,” Kurc recalled, referring to the pace of construction under Trump. “There were even crews working at night.” While Biden was being inaugurated, Kurc observed the last dynamite blast on the border.