The Washington Post
Monday, April 26, 2004; Page A21

Protecting the Parks Along the Border

Plans to Stop Smuggling Of Drugs, Immigrants May Trample Lands

By Ryan Slattery
Special to The Washington Post

TUCSON -- The government's most ambitious plan yet to seal the Arizona-Mexico border is drawing criticism from environmentalists who say granting the U.S. Border Patrol greater access to federally protected lands will only trample the landscape and do nothing to solve immigrant and drug smuggling in the region.

The portion of the plan at the center of the controversy is the Border Patrol's request to use off-road motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles on known smuggling routes and footpaths within designated wilderness corridors. Arizona shares more than 300 miles of border with Mexico, and much of it is federal land that protects fragile ecosystems and provides habitat for endangered species such as the Sonoran pronghorn , a type of antelope.

Thousands of miles of illegal roads already crisscross the Arizona desert, and environmentalists and land managers fear unfettered law enforcement access will spider web across the preserves.

"This is an over-the-top approach," said Daniel Patterson, a desert ecologist with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. "These areas do not recover quickly."

Roger Maier, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman, points out that illegal traffic in these areas is already ruining the parklands. Immigrants and smugglers abandon vehicles, leave behind mounds of trash and crush plant life. He says enforcement will cut down on those destructive behaviors by keeping the illegal element out of these areas.

"Certainly, we recognize the need to do everything possible to maintain the integrity of the park in its natural state, while also having to address the issue of the illegal activity occurring there," Maier said.

The criticism comes despite record numbers of apprehensions and three large drug busts at the Nogales port of entry within the past month that, Border Patrol officials say, proves the efforts are paying off. On April 14, border officers at a cargo facility seized 2,140 pounds of marijuana worth an estimated $2.1 million. In two previous busts in March, officers seized a total of 4,291 pounds of marijuana.

The new measures, called the Arizona Border Control (ABC) Initiative, were announced March 16 by Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security in the Department of Homeland Security, who noted that 40 percent of illegal immigrants entering the United States cross the Arizona border.

At the announcement of the ABC Initiative, Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary Larry Parkinson said, "The best thing you can do for the environment is to have control of the border."

Crackdowns at urban ports in California and Texas have pushed undocumented workers and drug smugglers into the most remote areas of the Arizona desert. Since the beginning of the year, the Border Patrol's Tucson sector has seen a 50 percent increase in the number of illegal immigrants captured over the same period a year ago, a figure some attribute to increased patrols. And a spillover is being felt in New Mexico, with agents at the Lordsburg crossing reporting an 80 percent increase in apprehensions.

Under the ABC Initiative, 260 additional agents are being deployed in the Tucson sector, for a total of about 2,000 agents. Unmanned aerial vehicles will begin operation in June, and electronic ground sensors, remote video cameras and more aircraft are being added. The $10 million initiative has been funded through the end of September.

"This is a full-court press, as far as Homeland Security goes," Maier said. "It's already generating a lot of results. We're getting feedback from Mexico that the word is that it has already tightened up here. Maybe they'll think twice and not even come."

The ABC Initiative came as a surprise to many. Environmentalist charge that the Department of Homeland Security did not do environmental studies that are required when increased activities are being proposed on public lands.

"This came under the cover of darkness," said Jenny Neeley of Defenders of Wildlife.

But Maier said, "The parties were brought in as early as possible."

Stuck in the middle of the debate are federal land managers such as Roger DiRosa, who oversees the 860,000-acre Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, 93 percent of which is designated wilderness, near Ajo, Ariz. DiRosa was hired to protect the natural resources within a refuge that shares 56 miles of the border with Mexico, and his job has become a balancing act with the focus shifted to combating criminal activities. And with only three full-time enforcement officers in the refuge, DiRosa is dependent on Border Control agents. He only wishes the agency would better express its needs for access to remote areas of the refuge.

"Don't give us a blanket approach, be specific," said DiRosa, who said that public land mangers were also surprised by the Border Patrol plans.

DiRosa says Border Patrol officials have since entered into consultations with the refuge staff about its planned activities in Cabeza Prieta and how to minimize any damage. He said he hopes they'll consider using horses where possible instead of motorized vehicles and implement more quickly plans for high-tech monitoring systems that would also reduce the impact on the environment. Refuge and Border Patrol officials are also looking into the possibility of using some of the illegal roads for the agents' motorized vehicles and of locating field sites in less environmentally sensitive areas.

Officials at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument have taken measures into their own hands after the August 2002 murder of Ranger Kris Eggle by Mexican drug traffickers. They have hired more law enforcement officers and are replacing a flimsy barbed-wire fence with a five-foot-high vehicle barrier constructed of railroad ties. The fence, five miles of which is complete, will eventually run the entire 31-mile length of the park's border.

"It's a start, but it's certainly not enough," Bonnie Eggle, Kris's mother, said recently in Las Vegas where she attended a meeting of Secured Borders USA, a Nevada-based group calling for the militarization of the U.S. border.

But DiRosa, whose refuge borders Organ Pipe, worries that without his own fence, he will inherit the Organ Pipe's illegal immigration problems.

"It's going to drive more traffic our way," DiRosa said with a sigh. He added, "The solution [to illegal immigration] is not on the Mexican border. It's in Washington, D.C., and Mexico City."

© 2004