EXCLUSIVE: ‘Largest’ mountaintop border-wall blast captured on video in Arizona wilderness

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Border Patrol agents and sheriff's deputies confront journalists, environmentalists waiting in desert all day for explosion

GUADALUPE CANYON, Arizona (Border Report) — On a dusty dirt road in a canyon bowl in the southeasternmost corner of Arizona, a group of environmentalists and journalists waited most of Monday while crews strung explosive wires on the side of a mountain before blowing it up to build the border wall.

All morning and into early afternoon, construction crews hauled away limestone, hammered into rocks and prepared for what is the latest in explosions to rock this part of the Peloncillo Mountains, the dividing line between the United States and Mexico.

Myles Traphagen, an ecologist who heads the Borderlands Program for the nonprofit Wildlands Network, is seen on Oct. 19, 2020, in Guadalupe Canyon in remote southeastern Arizona where the border wall is being built. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“They’re circumcising the mountains,” said ecologist Myles Traphagen, borderlands program coordinator for the nonprofit Wildlands Network, as he waited in the near triple-digit heat and blazing desert sun. “And the shame of it is this is not just borderlands, it’s ground zero for bio diversity in North America.”

This area, barely visible on a map and out of range for any Internet provider, is on the far eastern edge of the state, about 15 miles east of the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge. It is a wilderness study area, and listed in the Federal Register as an “area of critical environmental concern” and it is one of the last places where border wall construction is beginning in Arizona.

Since Border Report last visited the neighboring San Bernardino wildlife refuge and documented the very first border wall panels going up in the area in November, a new, 19.3-mile line of 30-foot-tall metal bollard wall and floodlights now cuts through the refuge.

A 19-mile-long newly completed section of border wall is seen on Oct. 19, 2020, in the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, about 15 miles southeast of the town of Douglas, Arizona. (Photos by Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

The Trump administration diverted about $10 billion from Department of Defense funding to build the border wall in New Mexico and Arizona, including this area, after it did not receive all the funding it had asked from Congress.

There have been numerous court challenges to the extraction of military funds to construct the border wall. And on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would hear a case challenging the legitimacy of using these funds. However, the court won’t take up the case until next year, which is well after the Nov. 3 presidential election. And depending on who wins, the election could decide whether border wall construction will continue, or increase rapidly.

Democratic presidential challenger former Vice President Joe Biden has said if he was elected he would cease further border wall construction.

President Donald Trump has been racing to build 450 new border wall miles before the election. And his administration is largely doing that in federal lands, such as the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, and at Guadalupe Canyon’s federal wilderness area, where it has waived environmental laws and where it owns the property and is able to quickly blast and build.

President Donald Trump works the crowd after speaking at a campaign rally Monday, Oct. 19, 2020, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

On Monday, Trump visited Arizona for a couple of campaign stops throughout the state and touted the necessity of building a wall on the Southwest border. He had scheduled these visits for Oct. 5 but had to cancel when he came down with coronavirus. Now vibrantly back on the campaign trail, he emphasized the need for border security in this part of the country.

“You aren’t paying a penny” for the border wall, Trump told a crowd in Tucson. ““It’s all compliments of the federal government.”

From left: John Kurc, Robin Motzer, Kate Scott, and Myles Traphagen, waited seven hours in Guadalupe Canyon to witness a border wall construction blast on Oct. 19, 2020, in the Peloncillo Mountains in remote southeastern Arizona. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Arizona is slated to get 230 miles of new border wall. Some call it replacement wall, however it is far different from what previously was built. Much of the earlier structures resemble tank barriers put up during the Normandy, France, beach invasion, giant metal X’s, or low metal fences with side slats in between.

Traphagen says the border wall that is being built — with 6-inch-wide vertical metal bollard strips and 4-inch-wide gaps — do not allow enough space for animals to pass through. And he says he is troubled that nobody seems to care about this remote area where the mountains “aren’t high-enough to attract the REI-climbing types.”

“Definitely, Arizona has fared the worst with the border wall,” Traphagen said, as a group of quails crossed the limestone trail just 20 feet from him, preceded by two Coues whitetail deer, a preference among American hunters and which migrate north from Mexico here.

A section of new border wall is seen on Oct. 19, 2020, in Guadalupe Canyon. Crews hired by U.S. Customs and Border Protection are working to connect bollard wall panels to this spot through 4.5 miles of the Peloncillo Mountains in remote southeastern Arizona. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

The section that is being built in Guadalupe Canyon is the last 4.5 miles of the border wall to be completed in this area and it is to connect to the wall in San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge and to the New Mexico state line. But first, crews contracted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Army Corps of Engineers must blast their way to the state line, carving a switchback road snaking through the mountains where the 30-foot-tall metal bollard wall can be placed.

“They’re taking down the mountains and we won’t be able to reverse this in the future,” Traphagen said.

When they do that, Traphagen says, migratory routes for the jaguar and black bears will forever be altered. This is the only area that connects to the Sierra Madre Mountains and the animals for hundreds of years have known no international boundaries. Guadalupe Canyon is near where the first known jaguar crossed into the United States in 1996.

Kate Scott, left, and Robin Motzer, of Tucson, Arizona, document border wall construction as they wait in Guadalupe Canyon on Oct. 19, 2020. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“Why can’t our voices be heard? Why can’t we be the leaders because we’re the ones that care? These people don’t care. They come here from other states just to make their paycheck then they go home and destroy something else,” said 55-year-old artist and poet Robin Motzer, tears streaming from her eyes as crews on the mountaintop were preparing to blast it. “It never ends. They never learn that we are nature and what we do to her, we do to us, and this is not fixing the problem. The problem is with our consciousness. We need to wake up.”

“We need to have conscientious, compassionate, intuitive conservation and immigration policies that value and respect people, wildlife, habitat, water, air, land. All of it,” said Kate Scott, 62, a mechanical engineer who runs the nonprofit group Madrean Archipelo Wildlife Center.

Scott and Motzer traveled three hours from Tucson on Monday to bear witness to the blasting. Traphagen, also from Tucson, camped in his SUV the night before and had been waiting since 6:30 a.m. for the event. Freelance filmmaker Leslie Epperson, who left her Tucson home at 4:30 a.m. to see the blast, has been making a movie on the endangered jaguars.

Minutes turned into hours, and the high dry heat of the desert set in as the group waited and chugged bottle after bottle of water.

This area is where the Chihuahuan Desert and Sonoran Desert meet. It’s one of the driest places in North America. Cochise County was declared a natural disaster because of the lack of rain this past year.

And yet, border wall contractors are extracting groundwater for the construction site from the desert, said Scott, 62, whose group brings awareness to groundwater being taken for the border wall construction in this dry, desert state.

As they waited, photographer John Kurc described the blasting process that he has been documenting for the past five weeks. Kurc has been living out of his vehicle after he came to Arizona to film a Rolling Stones concert that was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and he stumbled upon the border wall issue. Now he tweets drone video and says he’s here for the long haul and to show images of an area few even know exist, much less are aware of what is going on.

Kurc flies a quadcopter drone over the blast sites and tracks the movement of “dynamite trucks,” and all of the pre-wiring done prior to the blasts. Most blasts happen at the bottom of the hour, and it was 3:30 p.m. on Monday before the mammoth blast finally was detonated.

A group of deputies from the Cochise County Sheriff’s Department and two Border Patrol agents converge upon journalists and environmentalists in remote Guadalupe Canyon, in southeastern Arizona, on Oct. 19, 2020. No arrests were made and they had been told the group was protesting. Afterward, some group members hugged with relief. (Photos by Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

But hours before it went off, around 11:30 a.m., a caravan of Cochise County sheriff’s vehicles, and two U.S. Border Patrol vehicles suddenly descended upon the group of six waiting in the remote ravine and tried to get them to move. They had been contacted by the construction contractors and told that a group of “protesters” were trying to block the site. The sheriff’s deputies drove 40 miles to get here to check out the scene and make arrests, if needed, Cochise Sheriff’s Sgt. Luis Hernandez told Border Report.

Kurc said the group was well behind the mandated 2,500-foot detonation zone, but deputies said they were told this blast would require a 3,000-foot zone and all would have to leave. Kurc and the others refused, demanding proof of the expanded zone, and after about 30 minutes the deputies left without making any arrests. They did warn the group that they could be harmed by falling rocks and debris, and Hernandez said that the blasting on Monday would be “one of the largest to date.”

Four hours later, the construction crews all cleared the mountain — all equipment and bodies were off-site. Then right at 3:30 p.m. the mountain suddenly went up in billowing white smoke as pounds of explosives blew apart limestone and thousands of years of formation in one synchronized detonation. The blast was so strong it took six seconds for the sound to reach the waiting group of onlookers.

“Wow, they blasted the (expletive) out of it this time,” Kurc said as the smoke continued to rain down limestone from the opposite mountain. When asked if it was larger than most blasts he said “Yes, because they did all those three big ones at one time. The one closest to us was huge. Look at all that (expletive) that came down.”

Reviewing his drone footage of the day, Kurc says contractors “illegally dumped debris on the Mexican side” as they excavated the southside of the mountain that was blasted. He posted on Twitter drone footage taken Monday showing debris raining down on Mexican lands.

Border Report has reached out to CBP officials for comment and asked whether there are any variances allowed for falling debris during border wall construction on the international boundary lines where there is no river separating the two countries. (This story will be updated if new information is provided.)

Despite hours of waiting in the hot sun, the small group did not immediately disburse after the blast. Motzer, Scott and Traphagen stood still as if watching a funeral procession. They then talked for nearly 20 minutes about how they felt the building of a border wall is an injustice to this desert state they love.

A mountain blasted by CBP crews can be seen before (top photo) and after on Oct. 19, 2020, in the Peloncillo Mountains of rural southeastern Arizona. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“It’s a raping of the earth,” Motzer said as they got into their vehicles as the sun was beginning to set.

“I’ll be back tomorrow,” the weather-worn Kurc declared as he packed up his drone and expensive camera zoom lenses into his SUV where he planned to sleep on the wildlife refuge for yet another night in his quest to bring awareness to what is going on here.

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