As early morning sunlight cast a rose-colored glow over Western Santa Cruz County, pilot Bruce Gordon steered his single-engine plane over several mountain ranges, gliding parallel to the U.S.-Mexico border fence.
Russ McSpadden, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, squinted through the plane window, pointing out landmarks: Sycamore Canyon, the Pajarita Wilderness and a habitat for the rarely-spotted Arizona jaguar.
“This is really complicated, tough terrain,” McSpadden said.
The rugged expanse of land sits along the county’s southwestern edge and about 10 miles southeast of the unincorporated community of Arivaca. To explore the area, the NI embarked on a flyover Friday with Gordon, who runs EcoFlight – a non-profit that uses aircraft to educate passengers about wildland issues.
The region could be the site of a new road improvement and construction project, something that would allow Border Patrol vehicles to more quickly access the area and intercept border-crossing traffic, according to a scoping letter from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Forest Service.
Conservation advocates, however, are pushing back against the USFS and CBP project, alleging that more construction could jeopardize critical habitats for a variety of already-endangered species ranging from the yellow-billed cuckoo to the Chiricahua leopard frog.
A public comment period on the project, initially announced last month in the Nogales International, ended on Monday evening. The Center for Biological Diversity, however, along with a number of other environmental advocacy groups, has requested a 30-day extension of the comment period, contending that the federal agencies had not adequately described the projects’ environmental impacts.
As of Monday, no extension had been announced, according to a USFS spokesperson.
Through the Holden Canyon Connector Road project, contractors would repair and construct unpaved roadways in the area – a total of 12.62 miles. The improved roads would provide connectivity between Holden and Warsaw canyons.
Currently, Border Patrol agents must rely on forest system roads to reach the area, delaying response times significantly, according to the scoping letter from CBP and USFS.
“The few uneven, difficult-to-maintain, unpaved, ranch roads in the area have made … detection, response, and resolution extremely difficult,” the letter said.
The network of roads would further help agents “prevent illegal cross-border traffic, address emergencies involving human health and safety, and prevent or minimize environmental damage” in the area, the scoping letter said.
The project would also decommission just under four miles’ worth of road segments “no longer needed for patrol,” according to the scoping letter.
The project would take about six months to complete, the letter said.
It’s not clear if CBP is proposing the Holden Canyon Connector Road project to address higher patterns of migration in the area of western Santa Cruz County.
Data shows, however, that the region has not been immune to migrant deaths, according to data maintained by the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office and Humane Borders. In July 2023, for instance, the body of a 36-year-old woman was found several miles south of the ghost town of Ruby.
So far this year, migrant deaths have been particularly prevalent in other pockets of Santa Cruz County: An 18-year-old, a 25-year-old, and a third unidentified man were recovered in a remote area northwest of Tubac, the Humane Borders database shows. And another three people were found in the area of Mount Wrightson – a 49-year-old man, a 52-year-old woman, and an unidentified individual were all recovered last year. Both areas are far from the proposed road improvement site.
In a 23-page letter commenting on the project, the Center for Biological Diversity, along with other organizations, acknowledged the potential of migrant crossings. However, the letter argued that opening up more roads could lead to more migration – rather than further prevent it.
“(T)he proposed project would clearly open up new corridors for migrants and smugglers,” the conservation groups argued.
As Gordon’s plane sped west on Friday morning, McSpadden of the Center for Biological Diversity gestured toward the border fence.
“You’re looking at one of the greatest single threats to jaguar recovery,” he said.
For years, the Center for Biological Diversity and similar organizations like the Sierra Club have generally expressed strong opposition to construction related to border enforcement, citing potential and real-time destruction of critical habitats.
The Center’s most recent expression of opposition against the Holden Canyon Connector Road project comes at a critical time for one species in particular: In late September, the Center discovered a jaguar roaming the Huachuca Mountains in Cochise County. The large cat, McSpadden said, inhabits hundreds of miles during its lifetime – meaning the Holden Canyon Connect Road area could serve as a potential habitat for the few jaguars left in Arizona.
According to USFS and CBP, if the project continues moving forward, it would undergo federal scrutiny through the National Environmental Protection Act. The process, also known as NEPA, would include environmental impact assessments.
Still, the Center for Biological Diversity pointed out, if ultimately approved, the Holden Canyon Connector Road project would be compounded with the already-existing border fence, which was constructed through the waiving of environmental laws.
“Forest Service and CBP’s first priority should be restoring and revegetating the damages caused by border wall construction,” the Center for Biological Diversity wrote, “rather than proposing to build new roads that will further fragment and destroy wildlife habitat.”