When hunting near the U.S.-Mexico border, Garrett VeneKlasen typically keeps a lookout for a type of whitetail called the Coues deer.
But during the weeks the New Mexico Wildlife Federation leader spends in a tent, there’s something else he is equally likely to spot: the U.S. Border Patrol.
"We are literally looking — when you put your binoculars up — you are looking into Mexico, and Border Patrol is everywhere," VeneKlasen told E&E News. "You see them on horseback, you see them on ATVs, you see them in their vehicles at every crossroad."
But as the Trump administration pursues plans to construct a continuous barrier along the nation’s 2,000-mile southern border, VeneKlasen is concerned that not only will wildlife corridors be irreparably harmed, but he and others may find themselves cut off from access to public lands.
"What we’ll see is, along with the fence itself, there will be a ban on what you can do within that corridor," VeneKlasen predicted of the project, which Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly recently asserted could be completed within a two-year period.
"You’re going to have a huge construction project with tons of human activity, which is just going to absolutely destroy wildlife activity. And with the fence construction, we suspect there will be specific bans on where you can and cannot hunt, and where you can and cannot recreate, and that means probably hundreds of thousands of acres of restricted acres," he said.
Not everyone — even outspoken opponents of the border wall expansion — sees the project permanently circumventing access to public lands.
During the last push to erect an international barrier a decade ago, Sierra Club Borderlands Program Coordinator Dan Millis, who is based in Tucson, Ariz., said construction did not result in large closures of public lands.
Much depends on how the project is carried out. VeneKlasen and some local ranchers suggest that the use of technology for enforcement, such as drones, would be more effective and have less of an impact on wildlife, as well as not cut apart communities that thrive on both sides of the border. "They’re not our neighbors; they’re our family, our community," he said.
The Interior Department manages nearly 800 miles of border territory, or about 40 percent of the U.S.-Mexico border as it crosses California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
In addition, within 100 miles of the boundary line, Interior oversees more than 25 million acres of public lands, including six wildlife refuges, lands held in trust for four American Indian tribes, a half-dozen national parks and Bureau of Land Management districts.
The Trump administration has yet to finalize its plan for the border wall — which estimates suggest could cost up to $25 billion to construct — including its size and location. But a continuous barrier would necessarily cross public lands ranging from remote desert wilderness to steep canyons and rugged mountains, as well as rivers and floodplains.
Currently, vehicle barriers or pedestrian fences block about 700 miles of the border, including a stretch of 36 miles with double fencing and 14 miles with triple-layered barriers.
Much of that existing infrastructure is in urban areas that in the past proved to be popular passages for both people and commerce looking to cross the border illegally.
Customs and Border Protection Southwest Border Branch Chief Carlos Diaz would not comment about how new construction could affect access to federal lands, saying that the agency is "assessing the border infrastructure that is in place" and that it is too early to comment on additional construction.
CNN reported last week that a preliminary internal CBP report shows the agency is considering a plan that would include installing about 170 miles of new fencing — rather than a solid wall along the entire southern border — as well as replacing some existing barriers for a total of 831 miles of barriers.
‘Equally important missions’
History provides some guide for potential border wall effects.
Sierra Club’s Millis noted that the construction a decade ago led to longer-term closures of the Audubon Sabal Palm sanctuary and the Nature Conservancy’s Southmost Preserve in Texas, which serves as a research facility and is not open to the public.
Other locations, like the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument southwest of Tucson, Ariz., faced partial closures over public safety concerns about illegal cross-border activity. But that decision occurred in 2002 after the death of National Park Service Ranger Kris Eggle rather than as a result of the building spree that began in 2006.
That monument reopened its closed portions to visitors in 2014, after the installation of 30 miles of post-and-rail fence and a 5-mile pedestrian fence, as well as new emergency rescue beacons (Greenwire, Sept. 9, 2014).
Still, even if federal lands remain easily accessible, Matt Lee-Ashley, director of public lands at the Center for American Progress, suggested, an impermeable barrier — like the 40-foot-high concrete wall President Trump has called for — could "dramatically change" the experience of visiting locations like Big Bend National Park in Texas.
"That’s the kind of practical impact it might have on national parks and wildlife refuges and monuments up and down the border," Lee-Ashley said. Pointing to wilderness lands, he added: "The experience itself will change potentially if you start putting large amounts of infrastructure in. It’s not just building a wall but building roads to get materials into that area and officers to patrol the wall."
Lee-Ashley cited the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument as an example, noting fencing as well as a "virtual fence" including cameras and a forward operating base used by Customs and Border Protection.
"It makes the national park experience very strange, because it’s a blend of outdoor experience and a security state around you," he said.
But Organ Pipe Cactus Superintendent Brent Range has previously praised the work of Border Patrol agents within his jurisdiction, which in some ways has served as a model for collaboration between federal agencies on the border.
"Here in the park, our biggest partner is Border Patrol. Our job is to protect the land. Their job is to protect the border. We have equally important missions," Range told E&E News in 2014 (Greenwire, Sept. 8, 2014).
Range was not available for comment for this article.
The departments of Homeland Security, the Interior and Agriculture currently work together along the border under a 2006 memorandum of understanding.
Those relationship could change, however, if House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) is successful in his efforts to streamline that MOU (Greenwire, July 18).
Bishop has been a longtime proponent of expanding environmental waivers for CBP within 100 miles of the border; construction of a new border wall is already exempt from such regulations under a 2005 law that aimed to speed construction of the last border fence. But it remains to be seen whether Bishop will introduce similar legislation this session.
Bishop has said that the Fish and Wildlife Service has for the past three years been able to block the construction of CBP helicopter pads along the border over environmental concerns and that the existing memorandum needs to be "streamlined big time" so the border patrol can be effective "without being subject to a land manager’s veto of it."
But Lee-Ashley warned that if such a waiver were to succeed on Capitol Hill, it would be equivalent to giving the Department of Homeland Security "exclusive power over lands near the border."
Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, likewise asserted that new construction could echo past problems. The "facts have not changed" since the last wall construction hampered transportation in Texas, disrupted wildlife habitats and kept homeowners from their property, he argued.
"Building a wall is still the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border," Grijalva said in a statement to E&E News. "The wall will hurt wildlife; destroy sensitive habitat for endangered species; damage the natural flow of floodwaters; lead to costly litigation with landowners, Native American communities, and other stakeholders; and threaten the economic, social, and cultural ties between the United States and our neighbors."
Critics point to the California state park that sits on the border of San Diego and Tijuana. Created in the 1970s, Friendship Park was intended to showcase relations between the two nations but is now home to a double-layer border wall.
"What was established as a park to foster friendship and interaction between our two countries has been completely blocked off by two parallel border walls, and people who want to talk or touch fingertips through the steel bars now have to wait for special events when access is granted for a few hours by the U.S. Border Patrol," Millis said.
He also warned that Texas could face the most potential for loss of access to public land — whether temporarily during construction or permanently — because it would be difficult to build additional fencing along the Rio Grande that marks the border.
"The no man’s land created by border walls along the Rio Grande is already extensive, and there is potential for more inaccessible zones to be created, along with flooding and wildlife habitat and corridor damage caused by border walls," Millis said.
Existing barriers in Texas include the levee wall, which is built on the river’s floodplain and acts as a control for potential river overflows as well as human traffic. But the structure can be built as far as a mile from the river itself.
In southeastern Arizona, rancher Bill McDonald — who represents the fifth generation of his family on the Sycamore Ranch — praised the new Homeland Security secretary’s visit to the border but said he remains of a "wait-and-see opinion" on new construction.
"On the one hand, the idea of a continuous wall along the border is just absurd. It’s highly expensive and would have a negative impact on the wildlife," said McDonald, who serves as executive director of the Malpai Borderlands Group and has previously led the Arizona Cattle Growers.
But McDonald added that he knows other ranchers in the region who would like more than the barbed-wire fence that still marks the border in some places.
"If they will ask the people who live down here, ‘What is it that you really need?’ then things will be done in an intelligent way," said McDonald, whose Malpai Borderlands Group focuses on ecosystem management across nearly a million acres of open space in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. The land is a mix of federal and state lands and private property.
That could include additional efforts to create a "virtual wall" with technology like sensors and cameras, rather than an impermeable concrete barrier across rugged mountains that mark parts of the southern border.
"People going over those rough mountains won’t think twice about going over a wall that doesn’t have surveillance on it," McDonald said. Building additional walls or fencing "sounds good to people who aren’t close to the situation and don’t understand."
McDonald pointed to the last round of fence construction that began in 2006, when new barriers in Douglas, Ariz., drove illegal cross-border traffic to more isolated ranches 25 to 30 miles to the east. Fewer than 100 families live in the area included in the Malpai Borderlands.
"We didn’t expect there to be this huge change where great groups of people would be going across the landscape. We had trash and erosion problems that we never could have imagined," McDonald recalled.
But McDonald said that for a time, ranchers could only get "lip service" from the Border Patrol in response to their requests for additional enforcement. That changed in 2010 after the slaying of then-MBG board member Rob Krentz, who was killed on his ranch by an unknown assailant who was tracked to Mexico but not caught.
"After that, things started to change; they started to get serious about trying to secure the border besides just around municipalities," McDonald said. "The situation is much, much better today than it was then."
According to a Government Accountability Office report released last week, between fiscal 2013 and 2015, as many as 1.3 million "known illegal entries" occurred across the southern border.
While high turnover within Border Patrol can still present challenges to ranchers in the area, McDonald praised the agency for improved communication with ranchers, pointing to results like relocating the planned site of a forward operating base CBP had planned and working to reduce the impact of activities like off-road driving.
"It’s very hard for them not to have a footprint out there. They’ve had a big footprint out there," said McDonald. He cited an example of a road for water catchment that was previously used only a handful of times a year but may now have daily traffic as agents patrol the region.
"They’ve got people designated that we can go to when we have a problem, and they make an effort as best they can to deal with it, but it’s not perfect, obviously," added McDonald, who is a past recipient of the MacArthur Foundation fellowship for his work on the borderlands.