Ducey’s Shipping Container Wall Comes Down, but the Damage Is Done
The U.S. Forest Service cancels permits given to group monitoring the environmental damage in the Coronado National Forest.
Truck horns blasted and red dust billowed in the blue Arizona sky last Friday, as surplus army trucks sped up and down the border road, hauling shipping containers out of the Coronado National Forest, south of Sierra Vista.
Piles of dirt and trees, bulldozed by the construction crew, dotted the grassland of the San Rafael Valley, known as a vital wildlife corridor. Former Republican governor Doug Ducey had planned to build 10 miles of a double-stacked shipping container wall through the federally protected land. But residents and environmental groups occupied the construction site, running out the clock on Ducey’s final days in office.
In the waning days of December, Ducey, under threat of litigation from the Justice Department, finally agreed to remove the walls.
Now two lawsuits between Ducey and the federal government are on hold as Arizona’s new governor, Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, negotiates the end of the project.
In early January, the shipping containers in Yuma, which numbered around 130, came down in less than a week. But the nearly three-and-a-half miles of wall, which includes hundreds of shipping containers in the Coronado National Forest, could take at least another month to dismantle, according to environmentalists who are monitoring the removal and documenting the environmental damage.
On January 3, the Forest Service closed the area, citing concerns over “public health and safety.” It did so as AshBritt, the Florida-based company that built the wall, removes it without the prying eyes of the public or the media.
Only five designated monitors from environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, the Wildlands Network, and the Center for Biological Diversity, were allowed into the site with permits issued by the Forest Service. The five were documenting environmental damage from the wall and sharing videos, photos, and notes with Forest Service officials, who will be tasked with restoring the environmentally sensitive wildlife corridor, one of the last on the Arizona border where endangered jaguar, ocelots, and other animals can migrate between Mexico and the United States.
On Friday, however, the federal agency canceled those permits, citing safety reasons. I was at the Coronado National Forest when two of the environmental monitors—Kate Scott, who runs the nonprofit Madrean Archipelago Wildlife Center, and Russ McSpadden, of the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity—were approached by a ranger from the Forest Service who said their permits were no longer authorized.
The day before, Scott said, an armed security guard working for AshBritt had approached her while she was working and told her to leave. She showed him the signed permit from the federal agency, and the guard said it “didn’t mean shit to him,” according to Scott. “The Forest Service is coming to kick you out,” he warned.
The next day they did.
Robin Silver, cofounder of the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, who negotiated the permits, said he believes the real reason they were canceled is that the environmental damage is extensive, and that the federal agency did nothing to stop the construction, even though it was illegal. “It’s highly embarrassing for the Forest Service,” Silver said, “because of all of the damage that is now being exposed.”
I asked the Forest Service why the permits were canceled and whether the agency has anyone at the Coronado site monitoring the removal of the containers and environmental damages. The Forest Service and AshBritt declined to comment.
On Friday, the only Forest Service official I saw at the site was the ranger who told Scott and McSpadden that they were there illegally.
Silver said the center filed two lawsuits against Ducey and AshBritt, citing violations of the federal Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. The Endangered Species Act lawsuit is already moot, Silver said, because the wall is being removed, but the Clean Water Act lawsuit is still active, and one of the reasons they need to continue to monitor the site, he said.
Even as the shipping container wall comes down, the damage has already been done, Silver said. “With the construction and now the removal, the contractors have created new turnarounds for their excavators and compacted new roads. It’s going to take a huge restoration effort.”
People can easily climb over a shipping container wall, he noted, but animals cannot. “With climate change, animals are migrating north, but they can’t overcome these barriers,” he said. “While a human can in about 10 seconds.”
In August, Ducey cited an “invasion” at the border as the reason for granting AshBritt an emergency no-bid contract to build the shipping container walls. Judy Kioski, public information officer for Arizona’s Department of Emergency and Military Affairs, said about 1,700 shipping containers will be removed at a cost of $76.5 million. “The containers are being transported to state facilities in Yuma and Tucson until a plan for them is determined,” she said in an email.
I asked Kioski whether the state would eventually sell the shipping containers. “The condition of each will have to be determined once the inventory has been completely relocated to state facilities,” she replied.
AshBritt’s contract with the state, included $123.6 million to build the shipping container walls in Yuma and the Coronado National Forest. That’s in addition to the $76.5 million it’s now being paid to take them down.
The Florida-based disaster remediation firm has given millions to both Democrat and Republican campaigns. The company’s founder and director, Randal Perkins, paid a $125,000 fine in August 2021 for illegally donating $500,000 to the Trump super PAC America First Action.
At the time of the donation, AshBritt had a $40 million contract with the Defense Department, and under federal law government contractors are prohibited from donating to political committees. Trump’s super PAC refunded the money.
AshBritt also gave $120,000 to the Republican Governors Association, a top donor to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ re-election committee. DeSantis is currently the GOP’s favorite to run for president in 2024. Former Arizona Governor Doug Ducey is co-chair of the association.
It’s unclear how much the federal government will have to spend to remediate the damage in the Coronado National Forest. Or whether it will remediate.
“The Forest Service is supposed to protect the land,” said Scott. “What good are they if they’re not going to protect it? It’s still just us out here. We shut down the construction, and now we’re documenting the damage because no one else is.”
Silver said that in more than three decades of negotiating with the Forest Service, over various environmental protection laws, he’s determined that it rarely sides with the environment. The agency is too easily cowed by wealth and politics, he said. “They made a political decision early on to allow Ducey to run over them,” Silver said. “They didn’t stop the construction. We did. And we’ll continue to monitor the damages with or without a permit.”
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