On Jan. 6, members of an Alaska-based Army airborne engineer brigade parachuted out of an Air Force plane at Fort Huachuca. Since then, they've been working to cut 0.7 miles of border access road through rugged terrain approximately three miles west of the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales.
Project organizers say the experience, from the parachute drop-in to the remote road-building and eventual departure on Feb. 27, mirrors the type of mission the 40 soldiers might conduct if they were deployed to a place like Afghanistan.
"This will prepare them for future deployments, especially in the areas of current contingency operations," said Armando Carrasco, spokesman for the Department of Defense's Joint Task Force North (JTF North), the agency that coordinated the mission.
Standing on a hilltop above the work site Friday as heavy machinery dug through a steep slope below her, mission commander Lt. Michelle Zak spoke of the difficulties of maneuvering large earth movers around the mountains, canyons and ravines of western Santa Cruz County.
"It's been challenging, but also a great opportunity for us to train," she said.
This effort, along with other military road-building projects that have been conducted in the county in recent years, also provides a great opportunity for agents at the U.S. Border Patrol's Nogales Station to gain better access to some of their hardest-to-control areas.
"You've got to look at it as a win-win situation," said Agent Steven Passement, a spokesman for the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector.
"One, for the unit that's here and the units that will come, it's real-world training experience," he said. "And for us, we're getting infrastructure put in place that's going to be permanent."
Those permanent roads, built with drainage culverts to keep them from washing out, helps agents responds faster to illegal activity in the area and provide aid more quickly to migrants in distress. What's more, Passement said, a better road surface means less wear-and-tear on Border Patrol vehicles, and therefore less expenditures on new tires, shock absorbers and struts.
Local residents and businesses are also benefiting from the arrangement. The current group of 40 engineers is staying at a local hotel and spending some of their pocket money at local establishments.
"I know a lot of the soldiers have been out on the town, and they've enjoyed the tacos that come from the trucks," Zak said.
Rancher Dan Bell, who grazes cattle in the same section of Coronado National Forest lands where the road are being built, says he's seen an improvement in security in the area since the road-building began.
"Prior to these roads going in, there really wasn't any way to get to the border in a lot of these areas," Bell said. "It's allowed (Border Patrol) to actually get down to the border and patrol the actual border rather than a larger area that they'd have to hike or go into on horseback."
The soldiers themselves are not engaged in any law enforcement activity while on the road-building projects, Carrasco said. That duty is left up to the Border Patrol.
Since the construction is taking place on National Forest land, the U.S. Forest Service has been included in the project planning, and an environmental monitor is on hand to make sure the project stays within the construction easement, said Maj. Chris Neels, mission planner for JTF North.
Even so, environmentalists like Jenny Neeley, conservation policy director at the Tucson-based Sky Island Alliance, say they are worried about the long-term effects of border-infrastructure projects that are conducted outside of federal environmental law. Since April 2008, the Department of Homeland Security has operated under a waiver that allows it to build border fencing and related infrastructure in the U.S. Southwest without having to adhere to more than 30 environmental regulations.
"We're extremely disappointed that none of it is subject to review under the National Environmental Policy Act because of the existing waiver along the border," Neeley said. "Those roads are being installed without any oversight whatsoever, in terms of regulatory oversight or having to follow best practices."
Neeley said she hadn't seen the particular roads being built west of Nogales, but she said there have been numerous projects carried out under the waiver that have later led to erosion and flooding. She cited an example from the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where rainwater runoff collapsed a 40-foot stretch of new border fence in August 2010 due to faulty design.
A Department of Homeland Security-sponsored public forum in December 2010 laid out the technical details and environmental analysis that had gone into the planning of the agency's border road and fence projects in and around Nogales. Still, Greg Gephart, program manager for tactical infrastructure for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, acknowledged that the projects would be conducted under the environmental waiver.
"The waiver doesn't mean we're throwing out all environmental considerations," Gephart said at the time. "It's just a method that allows us to expedite the construction."
The 40 Army engineers currently deployed to Nogales work six days a week, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Even so, due to the terrain, theirs is the first of three phases necessary to complete the 0.7 miles of roadway.
What's more, military units are scheduled to execute four additional engineering missions in the Nogales area in support of the Border Patrol during the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
It's all organized by JTF North, based at Fort Bliss, Texas, which has been supporting federal law enforcement agencies along the Southwest border since 1989. Working as a liaison between law enforcement and all four branches of the military, JTF North has coordinated engineering missions that built and improved roads and installed border lighting, fencing and vehicle barriers in areas stretching from California to Texas.
The majority of the costs of the projects are paid for with Department of Defense counter-drug funds, JTF North says; the participating law enforcement agency covers only the cost of materials.
For example, Tucson-based Hertz Equipment Rental has been contracted to provide the heavy machinery for the current road effort, as well as training and maintenance. That's all covered by JTF North, Carrasco said.
As for the price tag for the 0.7-mile road project, Carrasco estimated $400,000 for Phases 1 and 2 and $350,000 for Phase 3 - a grand total of $1.15 million.
Part of the expense includes the cost of housing the soldiers at an area hotel, which is also contracted to provide the team with a hot breakfast and dinner each day. (JTF North declined to name the hotel, citing security concerns.)
"It also creates a good quality of life for them while they're deployed on this mission," he said. "Obviously they work very hard, so it's important that we also take care of them during their down time."
As for the military engineers, they say they are greatly appreciative of the good meals and soft beds - as well as the warm, sunny weather of Southern Arizona. After all, they left their home base in the middle of the frigid, snowy and daylight-deprived Alaska winter.
Specialist Nickalous Herd, a native of Atlanta, praised the "wonderful weather, wonderful people and wonderful state" as he stood at the worksite Friday under clear blue skies and 70-degree temperatures. And while the local terrain has been a challenge to work with, Herd said, he has also enjoyed its rugged beauty.
"It is beautiful, it is extremely beautiful here," he said.
Sgt. Everell Gustave, a native of the Boston area, said the experience of coming to a new area and working under new conditions with new equipment has been an important skill-builder for his team, which, if deployed to Afghanistan, might parachute into a remote area to rebuild roads, supply routes and airstrips.
"It is definitely a good feeling for our guys. We are getting the training that we need to be successful anywhere around the world," Gustave said. "Helping out the Border Patrol is just a plus."