AJO, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) - It is called El Camino del Diablo, or the Devil's Highway. It has drawn settlers, miners, migrants, and adventure-seekers to the Arizona desert for hundreds of years.

But this, last wild space, as author Charles Bowden once referred to it, has lost some of its rugged allure - thanks to the US Department of Homeland Security and the effort to build a border wall.

Arizona's "Last Wild Space" now has smooth roads, big rigs and Honda Accords

There once was a two-track jeep trail that attracted overlanders and naturalists from around the world. There is now a 30 foot wide graded road. It is smooth enough for big rigs to haul supplies to construction crews blasting away at the desert. We even saw a Honda Accord driving along the route.

"These are places that people come from all over to get to because they're so hard to get to," said Laiken Jordahl, who works for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.

"Turning what was once this rugged four-wheel-drive route, this ancient travel route, into a thoroughfare that you could drive a semi down at 70 miles an hour, I mean, it is a disaster," said Jordahl.

He traveled the Camino last week, documenting damage to the fragile desert ecosystem. Jordahl says it may get even worse when the construction of the border wall is done.

"We've seen them install these massive light poles, which they haven't turned on yet. But I fear for the day when lights blast the Cabeza Prieta Wilderness and the Camino. I mean, it'll just ruin any sense of being out there in nature, every sense of remoteness," said Jordahl.

The first Europeans to travel the Camino are thought to have been the Conquistadors in the 1500s. The route has migrated north and south some miles. The current roadway goes from Ajo in the east to Yuma in the west, just north of the Arizona border with Mexico.

The road traverses the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Preserve, three mountain ranges, the Pinacate Lava Flow, and the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range. Visitors must sign a waiver that says they won't sue if they are injured or killed by unexploded ordnance.

The author, Edward Abbey, is buried somewhere near the Camino, and it has inspired generations of outdoor enthusiasts.

"The very first long-distance overland route I ever did was El Camino del Diablo," said Scott Brady, who is the publisher of Overland Journal and the Expedition Portal website.

Brady has traveled the world in the vehicle-based travel, or overlanding, industry. He says it was the Camino that inspired him to take on this vocation. And Brady says this stretch of undeveloped, wide open, challenging, and unforgiving desert was truly special.

"Even ten years ago, which was probably about the last time that I did it, it was still a two-track in most places. It was still very challenging to drive and took many days to cross it," said Brady.

"The fact that you could travel in such a primitive way and experience such a remote location without all of this development. It was one of the rare spots in the country to do that. And it is, in my mind, one of the longest unsupported overland routes in the 48 states. It's 150-plus miles from fuel stop to fuel stop," said Brady.

In October, several of the top-brass from US Customs and Border Protection went to Tucson for a year-end news conference. During that event, they spoke about the importance of the border wall in deterring illegal border crossers, drug smugglers, and migrants. They also stated that improved access to the border has helped agents to do their jobs more efficiently.

But naturalists and people who love the desert wonder if the price the environment is paying is too great.

For its part, the Camino is less popular today among outdoor enthusiasts and adventure seekers than it once was.

"That is what's disappointing. Is that because of policy and politics, we emphasized the very, very short term against what was millennia before it," said Brady.

Morgan Loew's hard-hitting investigations can be seen weekdays on CBS 5 News at 6:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.
 
 

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