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Borderline Tragedy 

The invasion along the border--and efforts to stop that invasion--continue harming the environment

Lehmann lovegrass spreads across furrowed hills and into the bone-dry washes of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. A slender plant with tawny seed puffs, it projects a fluorescent, almost delicate presence in the right light.

But don't let Lehmann's apparent fragility fool you: A native of South Africa, this grass is one tough customer. And its arrival here was coldly calculated, ostensibly to stop erosion. Three decades later, however, even fire won't destroy it. Like so many other things on this border refuge, lovegrass has become just another invader.

In the past, the good folks of this preserve burned manpower trying to expel Lehmann's. They don't have time to try so hard anymore. As a result, the grass has mostly conquered bleak stretches near the Mexican line. But in a sense, that is fitting; these areas are mostly a trampled no-man's land anyhow.

Today, Refuge Officer Drew Cyprian cruises towards that wasteland, his big Dodge passing through a forest of parked Border Patrol agents, and among a thick web of renegade trails and roads. Border Patrol agents themselves are suspected of adding to this web, or of at least making liberal use of it. That's not something you're going to hear from Cyprian, however.

Preserves like Buenos Aires need the Border Patrol, he says. A graying soul patch beneath his lip, a stout rifle by his side, Cyprian likewise pulls long shifts policing this range. He's one of only four officers trying to protect a 118,000-acre refuge that has, in places, become a sacrifice zone of trash, illicit byways and abandoned vehicles shimmering beneath an indifferent sun.

It's a hugely expensive problem: Despite the beefy Border Patrol presence, each year, Buenos Aires spends nearly one-third of its $1.5 million budget for law enforcement. Even carting off hundreds of vehicles, often jettisoned in remarkably godforsaken spots, can cost up to $300 a pop. "So, some of them just sit there," Cyprian tells me, "until we have the budget to have them towed."

You might call Buenos Aires a tragic juncture of geography and politics. If the refuge didn't share nearly six miles of borderline with Mexico, it likely wouldn't host up to 3,000 illegal migrants and smugglers on any given night. Nor would it have 500 tons of trash yearly from that commerce, or an army of Border Patrol agents rumbling about in their trucks and ATVs.

But then, if the Border Patrol hadn't made a calculated decision in the 1990s to start pushing immigrant traffic away from border towns and out through such remote public lands, those lands probably wouldn't be in such dire shape today. So says Stephen Mumme, a border environmental management expert at Colorado State University, and a fellow at the University of California-San Diego's Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies.

"I think the Border Patrol made a raw calculation that the politics of immigration--and the political support for the agency--would be strengthened by moving immigration out of the high-density areas," he says.

Some might label Mumme a cynic. "But to suggest that (the Border Patrol) is not politically savvy," he says, "is to woefully underestimate their leadership." For example, he says the agency's quasi-documentary video, Border Under Siege, was unveiled amid a raging immigration debate in the 1990s, specifically to push legislation the Border Patrol supported. "They were as political as I've ever seen an agency."

Ron Sanders agrees. And he should know: Sanders was longtime chief of the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector before retiring in 1999. When I interviewed him a few years later, he told me agents were indeed being concentrated in border urban areas that "have a lot more political power than rural areas."

"It's as if you pulled all of your policemen out of South Tucson, and said, 'You know, that's an Hispanic area; there's not a lot of political clout down there, so we're going to put all of our (officers) up in the northwest area of Tucson, because those people have a lot more money and a lot more clout.'

"That's kind of the decision the Border Patrol has made in some areas," he said.

This could be viewed as just another bureaucratic shell game--if so much wasn't at stake. "There's no doubt that it's been consequential for the border environment, to areas important for biodiversity and critical species along the border," says Mumme. "In my view, this ranks right up there with the most serious and long-term adverse consequences for the environment created by humankind--right up there with the worst instances of urbanization, the worst instances of damning up our rivers."

The agency's Southwest Border Strategy, begun in 1994, deliberately aimed to push smuggling and immigration routes further into remote areas. According to a 2001 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office, the goal was "to make it so difficult and costly for aliens to attempt illegal entry that fewer individuals would try."

But that goal was illusory, says Roger DiRosa, manager of the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge near Ajo. "The Border Patrol severely underestimated the desire of people to better their lives and get in for work, and the ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit of drug smugglers. By the time we figured out what was happening, they had to respond to it."

Like Buenos Aires, Cabeza felt the full brunt of that shift: Today, DiRosa's refuge is a maze of wildcat roads, and heavy illicit traffic harasses already endangered wildlife such as lesser long-nosed bats and Sonoran pronghorn. And so, like other land managers, he finds himself locked in a desperate embrace with the Border Patrol--hostage to the agency's policies, but now reliant on its protection.

Still, he says it's wrong to simply blame the Southwest Border Strategy for Cabeza's woes. "It's a chasing-your-tail sort question, because law enforcement would not be out there doing these things if not for the immigration. Obviously, illegal activity drives the whole thing."

Others say culpability is clear. Among them is Jenny Neeley, a Tucson staffer with the Defenders of Wildlife.

"Whether it's Border Patrol impacts or migrant impacts, all the damage we're seeing is being caused by border policy," she says. "It's happening because the Border Patrol made a deliberate decision to funnel people into the desert areas. It's all stemming from that strategic decision--and the false assumption it was based on."

The false assumption, Neeley says, is that "the Border Patrol thought it would reduce immigration by pushing people into those more remote areas. But that hasn't happened."

(For the record, the Tucson Weekly made several attempts, over nearly a month, to obtain comment from the Border Patrol for this story. In that time, it seemed the agency was more unable than unwilling to respond.)

Recently, Neeley and Defenders attorney Brian Segee published On the Line, a report detailing the impacts of immigration and federal policies on border-area preserves. It paints a grim picture of failing species, rutted roads and Border Patrol agents riding roughshod over fragile desert.

Sonoran pronghorns could be the poster children for this dilemma. Considered the world's second-fastest land mammals--capable of hitting 60 mph--they can quickly outdistance a host of predators. But pronghorns can't escape the impact of border traffic. Today, they exist in small population pockets on the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, the adjacent Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Buenos Aires.

The pronghorn's nosedive is attributed to many factors, including livestock grazing and the ongoing drought. While the drought obviously occurred on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, however, only pronghorns in this country experienced a population crash; the Arizona Game and Fish Department reported a 79 percent decline in animals between the years 2000 and 2002.

According to an Aug. 6, 2003, biological opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "the high level of human activities and disturbance on the U.S. side has exacerbated the effects of the drought. Increasing undocumented migrant traffic, smuggling and associated law enforcement response are of particular concern."

Despite this tumult, Neeley argues that the Southwest Border Strategy could have been less devastating if Border Patrol officials hadn't ignored their responsibilities under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or the Endangered Species Act (ESA). For example, NEPA requires that federal agencies integrate environmental considerations into decision making. Any impacts--along with less harmful alternatives--are then to be published in environmental impact statements.

By turn, the ESA requires those agencies to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when actions may impact an endangered species. "But the Border Patrol has been ignoring those environmental laws the whole time it's been implementing this strategy," Neeley says. "I don't know if we've ever had an agency operating with such impunity. They treat NEPA like a bunch of paperwork they can fill out and just move on."

Neeley provided the Weekly with a letter appearing to illustrate this offhand attitude. Dated June 13, 2003, it's titled "Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for US Border Patrol Activities Within the Border Areas of the Tucson and Yuma Sectors, Arizona."

It essentially retracts an earlier environmental impact statement for security installations: "The conjectural infrastructure plans included massive construction of roads, double fences, lights and monitoring equipment that were monumental in extent," it reads. "The types and quantities presented in the (assessment) addressed a 'worst-case scenario,' and can only be thought of as having little utility except in the case of a mass invasion."

A waste of time and taxpayer dollars? Neeley certainly thinks so.

Still, the current border situation is nothing if not ironic; just when things were getting hairy, the Border Patrol discovered that even going through the motions may no longer be required.

In March 2005, President Bush signed into law the Real ID Act. Among other provisions, this law allows the Department of Homeland Security--which now includes the Border Patrol--to waive all environmental reviews when building roads, barriers and other security aids along the Mexican boundary.

It likewise prohibits courts from reviewing those projects, making environmental lawsuits against habitat-destructive measures utterly pointless.

The act was sparked by a conflict south of San Diego, where the DHS hoped to restrict cross-border traffic by filling a gulch used by traffickers, shearing off ridge tops to ease patrolling and raising a triple fence near the international boundary.

But in February 2004, this draconian approach was rejected by the California Coastal Commission, a state regulatory body. In response, Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter, from nearby El Cajon, Calif., proposed granting Homeland Security the power to override the commission's decision. Somewhere along the way, Hunter's measure became a Republican juggernaut for gutting environmental laws along the entire border.

Since then, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff has exerted his authority in California, and the border project south of San Diego has been given a green light. But critics worry that Real ID grants Chertoff and his successors sweeping powers that can be used--and abused--whenever they feel that environmental concerns are frustrating their border security efforts.

Even the Congressional Research Service, a policy research arm of Congress, remarked that "waivers of similar breadth do not appear to be common in federal law," and noted "constitutional issues with regard to Congress' power to restrict state court jurisdiction directly," such as in California.

Stephen Mumme agrees. These changes "have fundamentally changed the politics of the border environment," he says. "The initiative has been seized by Homeland Security."

And that leaves environmentalists in the cold, he says. "There is no committee within Homeland Security that would require--or even invite--the presence of environmental experts to consider environmental impacts of infrastructure at the border. There should be one, but there isn't."

However, Roger DiRosa is more sanguine about Real ID, which he believes will not be used wholesale along the border. "The DHS has said that's not what they intend," he says. "And cooler heads (in Washington, D.C.) are now looking at things differently than they were two or three years ago."

But that's cold comfort, say environmentalists. They point to a slew of proposals, both from the Arizona Legislature and Congress, to construct massive barriers along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. Such a bill did pass the U.S. House of Representatives in December; its highlight was a fence stretching across Southern Arizona.

Such barriers would be a nightmare for wildlife, says Neeley. "Proposals like 700 miles of fencing or walls would absolutely devastate the border environment.

"Are politicians telling people that those walls would go through some of the protected jewels of this country?" she asks. "Areas that get the walls would be devastated by the direct impact of the infrastructure. Areas that don't get them are going to be heavily impacted by the shift of migrant traffic into those areas. Then there's the subsequent border security activities that would follow.

"When I hear about these proposals, a panic sets in," she says. "We're talking about impacts that are irreversible." In addition, cross-border animal migration would be profoundly affected. "It would certainly end recovery of the jaguar in the United States. And it would probably devastate any recovery of the pygmy owl."

The office of Mitch Ellis, manager of Buenos Aires, is cool, tidy and snug. It also looks out to a parking lot now ringed by steel rails. Those rails were welded in place earlier this year, after several staff vehicles were stolen.

When I enter this office, David Bemiller is on his way out. A solid, friendly guy in civilian clothes, Bemiller is Border Patrol, and his job is coordinating agency operations with land managers like Ellis. In fact, the two have just finished a chat, which neither will discuss with me. "It's an active investigation," Ellis tells me after Bemiller leaves.

But just having this Border Patrol pointman is a huge leap forward, Ellis says. "We coordinate issues like vehicle barriers, or other initiatives they are getting ready to deploy in our area. "

Still, there's a sense of siege here. And it's not just my imagination: The refuge is under such assault that some areas abutting the border are now neglected wastelands. These days, says Ellis, refuge workers don't even try to take out wildcat trails "because it's a losing battle. If we had one that was eroding badly, we might try to do something. But otherwise, there's too many of them."

In light of these ravages, Buenos Aires must contend "with a certain amount of enforcement activity," he says. "There's criminal activity, folks doing bad things out there. And, of course, we have to counter with law enforcement. So put it all together, and you end up with a lot of damage."

Of course, that also takes a toll on wildlife. "You get 200 to 300 people moving through an area, and you're pushing pronghorn around; you're pushing deer around, and birds--the cumulative impact is significant. Pygmy owls and a lot of raptors don't like disturbances at their nesting sites.

"In addition, " he says, "we're trying to reintroduce pronghorn to this refuge, and they're very sensitive to disturbance. We've released over 100 with Arizona Game and Fish. But their numbers are steadily declining."

Ellis glances out the window at that parking lot. "I can't say for sure it's because of immigration," he says, "but that certainly contributes to it."

Over at Cabeza Prieta, Manager DiRosa also reports "a lot of resource damage and serious impacts to the wilderness character. We have four-wheel-drives going cross-country. There are 250 miles of illegal roads in a wilderness area.

"Then you have law enforcement doing search and rescue," DiRosa says, "helicopters flying in to extract people. If you were a hiker out there, would you want Black Hawk helicopters buzzing around?"

Still, those Border Patrol activities must be taken in stride, he says. "We need them. All the environmental groups cringe--and even I cringe--when we've have do something (enforcement-related) out there. But the alternative of not doing anything isn't good."

Indeed, the Cabeza may be a prime example of law enforcement engulfing public lands. Take the Border Patrol's Camp Grip: Squatting in the middle of the refuge, near the timeless Camino del Diablo migrant route, it started a couple of years back with single, bland trailer. Since then, however, Grip has morphed into a full-blown outpost with landing pads, Humvees and fuel supply trucks constantly coming and going.

"It operates 24/7, with up to 10 officers," DiRosa says. "It's obtrusive, but we support that field camp because it has had to minimize impacts when they were putting the camp in."

While law enforcement, immigration and smuggling hits the refuge hard, DiRosa doesn't even have staff enough to monitor the full impact. "But it's destroying habitat, and it's destroying roads--when they get rutted, it changes the hydrologic cycle. Then there's the pronghorn, which are very susceptible to disturbance by search-and-rescue helicopters."

Along with the imperiled pronghorn, endangered lesser long-nosed bats also suffered a recent disruption. They nested in a refuge cave each year--until smugglers tapped their site for a staging area. Then the bats disappeared. "It's one of only four known maternity caves in the United States," says DiRosa, "and we had 4,000 bats using it."

Finally, the refuge spent $75,000 to fence part of the opening--enough to keep smugglers and immigrants out--and the bats have returned.

Protecting these animals is among many reasons he works hand-in-glove with law enforcement, DiRosa says. "I'm joined at the hip with the Border Patrol. We have a hole right now. We're managing to keep it halfway plugged. We're taking on water, but without Border Patrol out there, we'd sink."

In the meantime, relationships between land managers and the Border Patrol have improved, he says. Prior to the strategic shifts in the 1990s, "they never operated on sensitive public lands with sensitive species. And as land mangers, we had never worked much in the past with Border Patrol, or now with Department of Homeland Security.

"We thought of them as wild cowboys--that somebody needed to get a handle on these guys. They looked at us as an impediment to national security and them doing their job. And neither was the case."

David Aguilar now heads the Border Patrol. But he was Tucson Sector chief during those contentious times. "Before he went to Washington," DiRosa says, "he and I bumped heads a couple of times.

"Once, he even said to me, 'Roger, a couple of years ago, I couldn't even spell NEPA, much less know what it meant.' They were not exempt from NEPA, but they had no reason to be concerned, because they simply didn't operate in that venue."

Friction reached a crescendo with the Arizona Border Control Initiative. Launched in 2004, this brawny strategy aimed to squelch illegal traffic with beefed-up enforcement along the Arizona-Mexico line. The heady initiative also arrived with plenty of attitude, DiRosa says. "It was top-down, Washington-driven. People came here, and they told me, 'Mr. DiRosa, you don't understand. We're not here to negotiate.'

"The Border Patrol wanted to put more camps in the middle of the refuge; they wanted to drop bulldozers in the middle of the refuge; they wanted to use drag roads. They wanted to use every illegal trail and track.

"In other words, it was carte blanche," he says. "They were going to do whatever was necessary, the public lands and sensitive species be damned. It was really kind of scary."

Since that low point, he says, things have warmed considerably, "The land managers had to work with them and educate them, and it took awhile." In the meantime, a cooperative agreement was fashioned between the departments of Interior, Agriculture and Homeland Security, codifying a new era of cooperation.

"So we've started working with them, and things have started to get better," DiRosa says, "although neither of us have the resources we need to do our jobs."

Back at Buenos Aires, Drew Cyprian waves at an agent parked on a stout bluff. Then he turns down a gentle slope towards the Mexican line. "I've been in this area since 1978," he's telling me, "and back then, I didn't even know what a Border Patrol agent was, because we just never saw them. It just wasn't an issue.

"I came to work over here when it was a cattle ranch, and I saw Border Patrol agents maybe two or three times. Then in the early to mid '90s, it started to pick up."

We stop and climb out of the truck. He shades his eyes, looking out to flats where trash--plastic bags, soda bottles and such--gathers amid endless tuffs of Lehmann lovegrass. And from this vista, the invasion seems a fait accompli.

More by Tim Vanderpool

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