The Trump administration plans to transfer federal land to military control in order to continue construction of the wall along the southern border, officials from the Interior Department announced Wednesday night.
The Department of the Interior, which controls public land around the country, announced that 560 acres of federal land will be transferred to the U.S. Army for the construction of 70 miles of border wall.
The transfer of land includes more than 300 acres of land in Yuma County, Arizona, including along the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, as well as 110 acres of land in the El Paso, Texas, area and 43 acres in San Diego County in California. No areas in national parks or national monuments are affected.
All of the impacted land is part of an area called the "Roosevelt Reservation," which was designated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907 to make all land 60 feet around the border between the U.S. and Mexico public to serve as a barrier against smuggling.
Interior Department officials said that this is the first time federal land has been transferred for border wall construction.
The transfer will be in effect for three years for border security purposes, according to the Interior Department. Department officials said the affected land will still be in federal control and the change allows the Army Corps of Engineers to proceed on its own timeline for construction of the wall.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the border wall would protect the lands from resource damage from migrants moving through the area. The U.S. Army requested the transfer on Sept. 4, after the Defense Department announced $3.6 billion would be used to fund border projects. Bernhardt visited that week.
"I've personally visited the sites that we are transferring to the Army, and there is no question that we have a crisis at our southern border. Absent this action, national security and natural resource values will be lost. The impacts of this crisis are vast and must be aggressively addressed with extraordinary measures," he said in a statement.
Language in the declaration of a national emergency around border security, signed by Trump in February, directs the secretaries of Defense, Interior and Homeland Security to support operations at the border, "including, if necessary, the transfer and acceptance of jurisdiction over border lands."
Activists and Democrats have raised concerns that allowing construction on public lands could damage the ecosystem in those areas by disrupting wildlife or using resources like water that are scarce in the desert.
House Natural Resources Chairman Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., strongly criticized Trump for the decision as well.
"The Trump administration has treated our border with Mexico like a testing ground for dangerous, extremist ideas from day one, and now we see public lands being handed over to the military using the same national security excuse they always hide behind," Grijalva said in a statement. "This sends a message to the world that we are a fearful country with no sense of responsibility or proportion."
"The Army doesn’t have the authority to enforce domestic laws, and anyone who believes in protecting our legal system should oppose this move and Trump’s border wall with everything they can muster," he added.
The move will become effective when a notice is published in the federal register, likely next week.