U.S./MEXICO BORDER, Ariz. — Andy Wrenn could not believe all the trucks. Every morning starting this fall, a herd of pickups rumbled past his home in the Huachuca Mountains near Arizona’s southern border, hauling shipping containers to a grassland populated mostly by songbirds and mule deer.
Then Mr. Wrenn drove down to the border and saw what was going on. The steel containers were not transporting anything — they were the thing being transported.
Each empty container was a 9,000-pound brick in a border wall being built on federal land by outgoing Republican Gov. Doug Ducey — a rebuke of President Biden’s border policies that has transformed a quiet corner of the Coronado National Forest into the country’s oddest battleground over immigration and public lands.
“To have this pile of scrap metal just sitting there — it’s so unbelievable,” Mr. Wrenn said.
As the wall grew to nearly four miles long, scores of protesters and angry residents arrived to block further work. A Democratic sheriff in the county next door threatened to arrest construction crews and their security guards if they crossed into his territory. But local Republican leaders and some ranchers in the area support the barrier, saying they feel abandoned by the federal government when it comes to ensuring border security.
The Biden administration went to court last week seeking to tear down Mr. Ducey’s wall, saying the governor had no power to unilaterally reshape federally managed public lands. There were no environmental reviews or public hearings before work crews began widening roads and tearing down oaks and junipers.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, whose agency oversees national forests, said the container wall was “unauthorized and unlawful,” and that it would not deter illegal crossings.
C.J. Karamargin, a spokesman for Mr. Ducey, said the container wall had been the governor’s best effort to stem a worsening humanitarian and safety crisis that officials in Washington had failed to resolve.
“Action needed to be taken,” Mr. Karamargin said. “Governor Ducey was not about to sit by and do nothing while the border crisis in Arizona metastasized.”
The containers are the latest in a string of headline-grabbing tactics from Republican governors. They have responded to what they say is a crisis of illegal crossings and cross-border crime by sending “strike forces” to the border, busing immigrants to New York and flying a planeload of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard.
Immigration officials have reported a record 2.4 million encounters with migrants along the length of the southern border over a yearlong period, an influx of people that has strained resources in border towns and become a galvanizing political issue for Republicans. Border authorities are preparing for yet more arrivals in anticipation of the lapse of Title 42, a pandemic-era policy that allowed for the rapid expulsion of migrants.
Border officials and public attention have focused on thousands of migrants wading across the Rio Grande in Texas, or walking through gaps in the border wall outside the farm town of Yuma, Ariz. Far fewer migrants traverse the rugged mountains of Coronado National Forest, where Mr. Ducey built Arizona’s container wall, former immigration officials said.
The number of encounters recorded by Border Patrol agents in the wider 260-mile Tucson sector of the border has risen by 20 percent since last year, to about 23,000 in October. The agency did not provide statistics for migrant crossings immediately around the container wall, and declined to comment on the project.
Mr. Ducey said he undertook the taxpayer-funded project, which has so far cost $82 million, to protect Arizona from drug traffickers and cross-border crime. As he prepares to leave office in early January, the wall poses an early political headache for his Democratic successor, Katie Hobbs, who has criticized the makeshift wall as a waste of money.
Conservation groups say the project has scarred one of Arizona’s natural jewels — a “sky island” mountain range that is critical habitat to endangered jaguars and throngs of migratory birds. The Center for Biological Diversity, which has been tracking the environmental impact, said that work crews felled more than a hundred trees, blocked two dozen seasonal waterways and squashed lizards as they bulldozed grasslands and dragged the containers through the forest.
“The landscape is quite beautiful, then you come and see this,” said Kate Scott, who owns a ranch and bird sanctuary in the closest populated area near the wall, an hour’s drive away on rutted roads.
Ms. Scott was out surveying the container wall one morning after a weekend of steady rain. The newly cleared ground had turned into dirt soup, and puddles were forming in the gaps between some of the containers.
From a distance, the wall looks like a cargo train to nowhere, a strand of giant red, blue and orange Legos spilling toward the horizon.
Up close, it is like standing in the graveyard of the global supply chain. The containers are double-stacked 18 feet high, some of them buckled and rusting and pocked with holes. A few are pitched at awkward angles, and others have gaps between them big enough to stroll through.
Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, a Republican, was the first to deploy shipping containers last year, lining up about 20 boxes along the Rio Grande near a bridge between Eagle Pass and Mexico.
Arizona followed in August after the Republican-run State Legislature budgeted $335 million for a border wall, arguing that if President Biden would not finish former President Trump’s border wall, Arizona would build its own.
It signed a contract with AshBritt, a Florida-based disaster-relief contractor that has made hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions, including a $500,000 contribution to a pro-Trump political action committee in 2018 that drew scrutiny from federal regulators. The company did not respond to a phone message.
At first, the state used the containers to plug gaps in sections of border fence in heavily traveled migrant corridors (news reports showed that one section immediately fell over).
Then in October, conservation groups and residents near the tiny community of Elgin in southeast Arizona started to notice trucks barreling across winding dirt roads that led toward the border.
The state’s plan was to build 10 miles of container wall in Cochise County, a largely conservative area where the county supervisors have voted to reject Covid-19 relief money and almost did not certify this November’s election results.
Gil Kerlikowske, a former commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection during the Obama administration, said the area was already monitored using technology including cameras, drones and sensors, and he was doubtful that the containers would deter any crossings.
“There are places on the border where it makes very little sense to have a fence because the terrain is so difficult,” he said. “They’re going to look for an easier route.”
For years, this stretch of border has been physically demarcated by a barbed-wire fence and X-shaped steel “hedgehogs” installed to block cars and trucks, part of a patchwork of physical barriers along 1,900-mile border, ranging from 30-foot-high bollards to nothing at all. A few mornings last week, a solitary Customs and Border Protection vehicle poked down the otherwise empty dirt roads.
Mr. Kerlikowske said the containers could actually impede border surveillance by preventing officers from seeing what is directly on the other side of the border.
Mr. Ducey preemptively sued the Biden administration in October, saying that Arizona had the authority to build the wall along a 60-foot-wide dirt strip along the border called the “Roosevelt Reservation.” In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered that the land right beside the border in California, New Mexico and Arizona be kept clear of any obstructions as a way to prevent smuggling.
Washington said that Arizona was essentially trespassing on federal land, but for weeks federal officials did nothing to stop the construction, to the growing frustration of neighbors and environmental activists.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, environmental groups decided to stop the wall on their own. They reasoned: If Mr. Ducey’s crews were not allowed to be on forest land in the first place, they had no legal power to thwart protesters.
A tense cat-and-mouse game unfolded in the forest. One day, Erick Meza of the Sierra Club said he jumped in front of a truck carrying a container. Another afternoon, protesters celebrated and went home after stopping work on the wall, only to return the next morning to realize that crews had added another 40 containers overnight.
But after protesters began camping out, playing Uno and soccer and snacking on mesquite muffins to pass the time, work stopped entirely. The Biden administration’s lawsuit brought new construction to a formal halt last week.
Republican officials in Yuma said they were glad some gaps in the wall had been closed. Some conservative ranchers and politicians in rural Cochise were upset that the work there has now been interrupted.
“It’s criminal that they’re stopping construction,” said State Representative Lupe Diaz, a Republican. He said that some ranchers in the area had been burglarized by migrants or found people hiding in their barns, adding that some felt so threatened by a rise in illegal crossings that they arm themselves to check on their stock.
Now, more than 800 shipping containers stand orphaned on the border, welded together with steel plates and fringed with concertina wire.
Ms. Hobbs, who was attacked by Republicans during the campaign as weak on border security, has not said whether she would remove the wall, maintain it or let it slowly fall prey to rusting or toppling during Arizona’s monsoon storms and lacerating summer heat. Conservation groups said portions of the containers running up and down eroded hillsides already looked unstable.
But Republicans in the area are now urging Ms. Hobbs to keep the wall, saying that even a symbolic barrier is better than nothing.
“Physical barriers do work,” said Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels, a Republican, who has called for tougher border restrictions and said his officers have made 1,400 arrests this year with some connection to the border. “We feel forgotten by our federal government. I welcome anything that’s going to preserve public safety,” he said.
He has made one request.
“I’ve asked the state to paint them,” Sheriff Dannels said. “We don’t want our deserts to look ugly.”