Desert ecosystem caught in crossfire of immigration battle

PALOMINAS, Ariz. -- The San Pedro River is idyllic on a mid-August morning, with tall cottonwood trees creating a shady respite from temperatures already into the high 80s and muddy banks pocked with animal tracks.

But the towering metal fence that ends less than 50 yards before the river, and a series of Normandy barriers largely hidden in the tall summer grass, serve as a reminder that this isn't a typical conservation area.

It's a battleground.

The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, which stretches across 57,000 acres of public land including this spot at the U.S.-Mexico border, is at the heart of a long-running fight involving environmentalists, federal agencies and Congress over how to control the nation's nearly 2,000-mile southern boundary.

House lawmakers launched the most recent offensive in August, when the chamber approved a supplemental spending measure -- primarily intended to address the humanitarian crisis of migrant children entering the United States -- that would waive environmental regulations and bar both the Interior and Agriculture departments from denying or restricting Customs and Border Protection activities on federal lands within 100 miles of the Mexican border.

Utah Rep. Rob Bishop (R) has previously pushed similar stand-alone legislation, arguing the waivers are needed to crack down on illegal border crossings, particularly on wilderness lands where vehicular travel is generally not allowed.

The measure would expand on existing waivers dating to 2005 that allow the Department of Homeland Security to circumvent environmental regulations to speed construction of barriers along the border, including the 600 miles of fencing that cuts across Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas.

Former White House Council on Environmental Quality official Dinah Bear, who moved to Tucson in 2011 after spending 25 years at CEQ first as deputy general counsel and then as general counsel, blames the House efforts on a "fault perception" on Capitol Hill.

"The fact of the matter is, there's no environmental litigation going on to stop the Border Patrol. The Border Patrol has ample access to public lands," Bear said in a recent interview.

Environmentalists including the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife initially fought to ensure environmental protections would be enforced along the border -- winning a federal lawsuit in 2007 before Homeland Security officials bypassed the judge's decision via the 2005 law -- but have since been focused largely on educational efforts to draw public attention to the ecological impacts.

"It's very hard to get the message out," Bear said. "People don't have a good understanding of what the resources are down here. People think it's dry dust sand dunes down here. It's not like working on [the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge] in Alaska, where people have an image in their mind where it's beautiful and it's got glaciers. They either have no image or an inaccurate image of the ecology here."

There's also the scope of the area that could be affected: With 100 miles of the border, Interior claims more than 25 million acres, including six wildlife refuges, lands held in trust for four American Indian tribes, a half-dozen national parks and Bureau of Land Management districts.


Sierra Club Borderlands Program Coordinator Dan Millis, who is based in Tucson, leads the effort to stunt misconceptions about the area, giving presentations to local officials, various conferences and other nonprofits, as well as bringing college students and media to see the border fence where it intersects with the San Pedro River (see related story).

"It's a young problem in a lot of ways," Millis said. "This phenomenon of trying to impose that line on the landscape is relatively new. ... They've really been trying to divide our borderlands, and it's not compatible with the communities that are already here or with the wildlands and the wildlife that depend on them."

He's often assisted in his mission by ranchers and landowners whose property abuts the San Pedro conservation area and the border itself.

Fences and floodwaters

When former U.S. Marine Bill Odle and his wife arrived in Palominas in 2000, the boundary between the United States and Mexico was marked out by a seven-strand barbed-wire fence first put in place nearly eight decades earlier.

"These cattle ranchers are finicky, they like to keep track of their cows. That's what that was for, it was to stop livestock. It was never to stop people or smuggling," Odle explained during a recent tour of the border.

Now a 14-foot-high fence stands just across the road from Odle's home, and he has become something of a tour guide for reporters and college students who want to visit this area, about two hours southeast of Tucson.

On a recent visit, as Odle maneuvered his pickup down the dirt road that leads about 3 miles from the state highway to his home, he indicated the border fence, which appeared from a distance as a long brown stripe in the landscape.

"It's that ugly line over there marring God's universe," Odle said.

Although Odle works regularly with local environmentalists and touts his ability to live off the grid thanks to solar energy and a well water system, he's anything but a stereotypical tree-hugger.

Odle proffers his disdain for the federal government freely and expresses disappointment over Homeland Security's methods of monitoring the border in this area, which is a crossing point for drug-related traffic.

"In an ideal world, which I tend to stray off into occasionally, this wall's gotta go. I'd take it down and I'd build Statues of Liberty out of it, put them every 10 miles along the border," Odle said, partly in jest.

Standing on Border Road itself, beyond the last in a series of cattle fences that must be unlocked and opened to reach this location, Odle gestured to a single Border Patrol vehicle parked a half-mile or so to the east.

"The thing is, it's not patrolled," he said of Border Road, as the wide gravel strip is labeled on maps. He noted he has at times driven the 12 miles east to Naco, Ariz., without seeing a single Border Patrol agent, although at other times he has seen as many as a half-dozen vehicles in the same stretch.

Odle also asserted that the towering structure has failed to halt drug trafficking through the area, pointing to various spots where the fence was repaired after being cut apart to allow vehicles to cross over.

Although criminals at one time used ramps to elevate vehicles over the fence, the more-recent 14-foot blockade has forced traffickers to amend their methods, Odle explained.

"They just cut it off at ground level with a carbide diamond saw and cut the screen and then just knock it down and drive over. It takes them, I'm told, less than five minutes to do that," Odle said. He adds that the ranchland on the other side of the fence is "all controlled by cartels."

Back in the truck, the tour continued a few short miles to the San Pedro River, but Odle made frequent stops to point out sections of the border fence that have been repaired or retrofitted for an altogether different reason: damage from flash floods that can sometimes result in portions of the fence falling down.

"You can see some of the erosional problems we have along here," Odle said, referring to a deep ditch that has developed between the fence and the dirt road near the top of a small hill.

While much of the border fence in this region features dense mesh grating between tall bollards, there are also several sections designed to allow floodwaters to pass through.

Odle idled his truck at a section of the fence composed of a series of gates. The lower half of each section was raised for a recent rainstorm, and a thick blue cable was strung across the opening along with a single row of barbed wire.

"You could drive this pickup through there; it's tall enough and wide enough if you pull the mirrors in," Odle noted.

The Sierra Club's Millis added that the floodgates are retrofits, installed after the original mesh fence resulted in flooding and debris issues. The blue cables were subsequently added to curb potential vehicle traffic, while the barbed wire is intended to keep cattle from wandering through the gates.

"It's just one jerry-rig after another of trying to retrofit this thing to be less of a nightmare," Millis said.

Another section of fence that is likewise intended to ease flooding issues features thick posts spaced 4 inches apart. But Odle noted the fence still traps debris that Homeland Security personnel must regularly clear out.

"It would be one thing if this was serving its intended purpose, but it's not, and I'll show you," Millis interjected, before scrambling up to the top of the fence, a feat that took him less than 15 seconds and left a trail of dusty footprints.

Still holding onto the top of the fence, he added: "You can do this from either side of the wall, especially if you're a desperate guy looking for a job or trying to get back home."

At a third stop, several sections of border fence panel were simply removed, replaced with several strands of barbed wire. Odle explained that Customs and Border Protection agents removed the fence to allow water through because the section lacked floodgates.

A short distance from the San Pedro River itself, the road turns north and out of sight to where it crosses the river. Odle stopped his truck next to a large metal cage about the same height as the fence that has at times contained generator-powered floodlights.

Although DHS initially tried to cut a new road straight to the river -- where Normandy barriers, large X-shaped metal structures, are placed when the river is low -- Millis pointed out that effort was abandoned due to flooding issues and small boulders were brought in to backfill the river banks.

Several larger boulders later installed to help block traffic have also washed downstream.

"What I try to show people here is that we've got walls on either side of the river," Millis added, pointing to where the border fence continues a quarter-mile west. "This is the last remaining north-south wildlife corridor for miles in this area."

Odle echoed the remark, noting that the wildlife corridor that once traversed his property is now narrowly funneled through gaps like this one at the river.

"They just shut it off," Odle said. "I can't quantify it, I'm not qualified to, but I'm definitely seeing fewer deer, fewer javelina -- there's definitely coyotes everywhere, bobcats -- so that's good, but this stuff is foolish, doesn't work."

Despite his distaste for the "feds," Odle dismissed suggestions that environmental regulations need to be waived to properly secure the nation's border.

"You just have to have it. There's no getting around it," Odle said. "It'd be a more perfect world if there were a lot fewer people and people did have the respect for things like this."

Working relationship

Situated along the U.S.-Mexico border a few hundred miles to the west is another flashpoint in the debate over how best to balance border security with the preservation of public lands, marked in the sprawling desert ecosystem of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

The monument is a known trouble spot for illegal border crossings, as migrant and drug traffic moves north through the harsh landscape, and 45 percent of its 312,000 acres of wilderness is closed to public.

But it is also perhaps among the better examples of collaboration between federal agencies tasked with missions that at times seem at odds -- and that are governed by a 2006 memorandum of understanding signed by the secretaries of Homeland Security, Interior and Agriculture.

Monument Superintendent Brent Range described the ties between the agencies as "imperative" and "essential" in a recent interview at his office in the Kris Eggle Visitor Center.

"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," said Range, who took over the monument's top post earlier this year after serving in a variety of law enforcement posts with the Bureau of Land Management.

"We're at the point where we can work to open the rest of the monument because of them," he added.

While there is no timeline for when the monument could eventually fully reopen to the public -- the closures first occurred in 2002 following the death of National Park Service ranger Kris Eggle, who was killed as he worked with Border Patrol agents pursuing suspects in drug-related murders -- Range stressed the positive changes that have already occurred thanks to new infrastructure like 30 miles of post-and-rail fence and a 5-mile pedestrian fence.

"It's not the big scary place that many people think it is. It's a safe place and a safe park. It's a beautiful place that needs to be seen by the public," Range said. Later in the interview, he added: "We want to get people back out here."

Range stressed that the monument -- home to hiking trails, a pair of scenic drives and campgrounds -- is safer these days, although he noted any outdoor or tourist destination possesses its own hazards.

"There's not a park or monument out there that doesn't have risk. We're no different. We have illegal activity coming across the border. We have hot, dry, rough terrain," Range said. "There's risks everywhere you go, and this is no different."

But among the improvements, Range noted the border fences have decreased high-speed pursuits along the two-lane state highway visitors and NPS employees must use to reach the monument.

He also pointed to a recent collaboration between NPS and the Border Patrol to install eight new emergency rescue beacons, based on maps showing where migrant deaths have most often occurred.

While the emergency units are keyed to migrant traffic and have no correlation to visitor incidents, Range said the units could still serve as "significant safety tools for visitors."

In addition to safety improvements, Range said agencies' collaborative relationship will also boost environmental projects.

In particular, he pointed to a major restoration project NPS is set to begin in October to address lands damaged because of "undesignated routes."

According to a 2010 report issued by then-Superintendent Lee Baiza, more than 2,500 miles of unauthorized roads and trails marred the monument and potentially damaged soil and vegetation.

"Our goal is to restore everything we can and as much as we can with the time and funding we have," Range said of the restoration project, which will be competed in late 2015.

That goal will be assisted by the Border Patrol; restoration workers will be allowed to use housing at the agency's forward operating base, located on the western edge of the monument's boundaries. The agreement will save significant travel time for those employees and allow a greater focus on the project, Range said.

He said he will also attend Border Patrol shift meetings to discuss the restoration project with officers.

"We've got a lot of smart people here and there. ... Those ideas are all coming together to improve our protection of the park and the effectiveness of their mission as well," he said.

Range also touched briefly on other projects Customs and Border Protection has funded to help mitigate the impact of border security in the area -- part of a 2009 agreement with Interior to fund up to $50 million in programs -- including the restoration of long-nosed bat habitat in the monument.

"The take-away from this is our relationship couldn't be better with Border Patrol now. We have a mutual understanding of each other's missions. Teamwork. Collaboration. That's what's occurring. It's really exciting," Range said.

But environmentalists like Tucson-based attorney Cyndi Tuell, a former Southwest conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, argue that many of the restoration projects now being pursued are needed because of the influx of Border Patrol agents.

"Right now if Border Patrol and DHS were required to comply with [National Environmental Policy Act] regulations, environmental groups would get involved and we would provide our input," Tuell said. "We could actually help improve some of these projects, make them more friendly to wildlife, less damaging to land and probably less expense in the long run because they wouldn't be spending millions of dollars on walls that fall down as soon as the monsoons come."

Greens fault Border Patrol

Tuell pointed to the unauthorized roads in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the adjacent Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, estimated at a combined 10,500 miles.

"A lot of our evidence shows that [Border Patrol agents are] just driving around," Tuell said. While law officers are permitted to drive into wilderness areas when in pursuit of illegal activity, Tuell said monitoring suggests officers appear to be veering off-road unnecessarily, whether on ATVs or in Jeeps.

"There's aerial surveys that show doughnut tracks. If that can be considered hot pursuit, they're going to have to explain that to me," she added. "If they are in hot pursuit or in the act of rescuing someone, there's absolutely no regulation that will stop them from doing what they need to do. And there's no environmental group asking them to not do what they need to do in those particular instances."

Both Tuell and Bear, the former CEQ counsel, have lobbied for better training for Border Patrol officers, with specialized training on individual land management agencies.

"The field agents don't understand the regulations or why they're there," Tuell lamented. "'Why do we have the Wilderness Act?' I don't think many of the field agents have any idea what it's for, and they definitely don't understand why desert soils or desert vegetation is so important and why you shouldn't drive over it, unless you have a really good reason to do so."

Tuell also pointed to the practice of "tire dragging," in which Border Patrol agents tow five to seven tires in a pyramid shape behind a vehicle to help smooth the ground and monitor for new vehicle tracks or footprints.

But the practice also unintentionally widens roads, Tuell said, and can also compact the road bed, leading to greater erosion during rainy periods.

"Illegal uses or inappropriate uses very quickly degrade an ecosystem. Restoring that ecosystem is going to take a lot of money and possibly decades to hundreds of years depending on the situation. That's why it's so important that Border Patrol, when they're doing things like building roads or fences or putting in forward operating bases, does it thoughtfully," Tuell said.

Both Bear and Tuell also argued that the Border Patrol's heavy presence -- visitors to the Organ Pipe monument pass through at least two Customs and Border Protection checkpoints, including one at the facility's entrance, about 20 miles north of the visitor center -- discourages visitors to the area.

"When you see a heavily armed Border Patrol in an ATV or a truck, you don't feel welcome to just go chat with them," Tuell said.

Bear noted that she and her husband have camped in the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge but rarely see other people, much less illegal activity.

"There's just hardly anybody out there," Bear said.

But she added that she and her husband also actively ask Border Patrol agents to leave them alone, visiting an operating base in the refuge to request that their campsite not be disturbed and they not be tracked during their hikes.

"And we didn't have any problems at all, not one," Bear said.

But Tuell added that many visitors may not be aware they are allowed to make such requests. He said, "I think the average person visiting there isn't just going to feel like, I can go up and knock on the forward operating base door and say, 'Hi. Here I am.'"

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