By Edie Harmon | Disgusting, wasteful, ugly, a border barrier project threatens the Jacumba Mountains Wilderness on California’s southern boundary. String together all the most negative adjectives you can think of, and it still doesn’t come close to what has happened and is about to happen a short walk from my home adjacent to the wilderness!
The border barrier nightmare portends a massive, unnecessary, and wasteful expenditure of federal taxpayer monies to destroy a magnificent wilderness area federally protected since 1994. This is doubly painful at a critical time where funds are needed during a coronavirus pandemic. From where I live, massive floodlights at night are a warning of the damage that is appearing even before public comments on this border barrier project are scheduled to close on May 15, 2020. It seems clear that the necessary decisions have already been made.
The information here is based on what I can see from my home and what was observed and photographed on May 4, 2020 as Nick Ervin and I hiked to see the source of the nighttime floodlights in the Wilderness. Additional information came from Border Patrol Camera room agents, from the BLM El Centro Field Office Manager, and from security guards at the site where large equipment has been stored in the Wilderness to the east of Skull Valley.
Before Nick and I started down the road from Highway 98, I called the BP camera room to notify the Border Patrol (BP) that we would be parking outside and then going for a hike into the Wilderness toward Skull Valley.
We encountered at least four armed private security guards, all of whom seemed reassured that BP agents in the area had been notified of our plans and location. So, here is what we saw and learned.Where we entered from the east, boundary signs had been removed, and we were uncertain where the designated Wilderness actually began. (This was later reported to BLM Area Manager.) There is no doubt, however, that the heavy machinery which we found above a steep drop-off into an ironwood wash was within the Wilderness.
Massive machinery inside the wilderness.
Photo by Nick Ervin
From the badly deteriorated, poorly paved road that goes west from Highway 98, a recently graded, heavily packed dirt/gravel road enters the Wilderness. It appears to be 18 to 20 ft wide at this point, with orange survey staked off a considerable distance on each side. One security guard volunteered that eventually the new road would be 40 feet wide with a water pipeline buried alongside the road. State Highway 98 is only 32 feet wide, so the construction road will be wider than the existing state highway. This new road to and into wilderness is in better shape than most of the paved roads in the Ocotillo area and is certainly better than the gravel roads in the Nomirage subdivision just to the north of the Jacumba Mountains Wilderness.
At the highest place on the road, and within Wilderness, there are massive floodlights that I can see from my home at night, as well as two large excavators, a massive bulldozer, a storage shed, a picnic table, and porta potties.
Massive machinery inside the wilderness.
Photo by Nick Ervin
The new road then continues down to a wash with a locked gate cemented in place. The width of gate appears to be narrower than heavy packed road. I fear many ironwoods are being damaged by heavy equipment and will be destroyed if steam shovels or dozers attempt to remove rock walls that are on either side of the gate to widen the road for equipment to pass to the border.
A security guard told us that in addition to widening the packed dirt/gravel road (which was likely packed down using a lot of water), the pipeline will bring water into the wilderness to make the concrete for the barrier wall. If barriers are supposed to go down 30 ft deep, that means a lot of concrete and a lot of water.
New road and pipeline into the wilderness.
Photo by Nick Ervin
BLM Field Manager, Ryan Chatterton. told me that there is an existing water well somewhere near the Mexican border on the east side of the Wilderness. He believed that the intent was to put a water line from the border area up to the north, then west along the new road, and then back to the south for making concrete. It seems likely that the large sand dune immediately to the northwest of the crucifixion thorns in Skull Valley might be used to make the concrete (as would likely the gravel from the mountain side just south of the dune). Using either source of sand or gravel would most likely result in the destruction of this unusual plant assemblage.
It seems likely that the large sand dune immediately to the northwest of the crucifixion thorns in Skull Valley might be used to make the concrete (as would likely the gravel from the mountain side just south of the dune). Using either source of sand or gravel would most likely result in the destruction of this unusual plant assemblage.
In the times when earlier peoples occupied this area 10,000-12,000 years ago, there may have been long periods of standing water or possibly a permanent body of water near this site. That could account for the numerous pieces of broken pottery and ancient tools made from quartz and volcanic debris in Skull Valley along the many ancient foot trails.
The security guard told us the road and pipeline area would eventually be restored to what it looked like before. This would appear impossible, especially since we get an average of 2-3 inches of rain in a good year. During one four year period, a USGS rain gage on my property recorded 0.8 inches and 0.9 inches of rain during 2 of the 4 years, and USGS decided to discontinue monitoring in this part of the desert. So how likely is it that there would be successful restoration/reclamation after massive equipment has impacted the area? At an ORV camping site near my home, BLM had placed signs, since removed, proclaiming that the area was a BLM desert restoration project. Decades later it is still a disaster with scant vegetation growing. Several other projects also failed to restore vegetation at nearby places impacted by ORV camping activities. These and other mine reclamation sites were photographed by USGS geologist Howard Wilshire as examples of desert restoration/reclamation failures.
The security guard told us that the work crew had seen a group of bighorn sheep in a wilderness wash last week. I would not have expected the sheep at that location, but rather higher up in the bouldery mountain sides. Security told us that there would be no place available for the bighorn sheep or any large mammals to cross the border as they regularly do today.
Of particular concern to me and other local residents is the question of how much potable groundwater would be used and to what extent it would impact the groundwater basin on both sides of the International border. Indeed, BLM’s concern about the Sole Source Aquifer designation for the basin was incorporated into its 2020 record of decision related to the the US Gypsum Company’s use of water several miles to the northeast from the Wilderness. Silence from Border Patrol followed my request for information about the water usage for the border wall. Now we shall see what details Border Patrol and Imperial County Planning are willing to provide related to the already drilled water well, its size, capacity, and intended pumpage and use.
Federal legislation has enabled the Department of Homeland Security to waive nearly all environmental laws (including NEPA, the Clean Water Act, and the Wilderness Act) that might impede this construction. <https://www.npca.org/resources/3295-laws-waived-for-border-wall-construction>. Nevertheless, it is ethically inexcusable and an inappropriate expenditure of federal dollars.
Edie Harmon lives within walking distance from the packed dirt road that has been constructed to access Skull Valley in the Jacumba Mountains Wilderness. “Walking from my house was my usual way to take friends and family into the wilderness”.
From the 1964 WILDERNESS ACT
Definition of Wilderness:
SECTION 2. (c) A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is
protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value. …………………………………………………………..