Talking Trash

Is the Buenos Aires/No More Deaths controversy really about litter?

In their ongoing struggle with the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, members of the humanitarian group No More Deaths have offered to unleash a huge trash-gathering operation on the border-area preserve.

The group wants to offset the effects of their efforts to place 1-gallon water jugs along migrant trails. But the offer has been flatly refused by refuge manager Mike Hawkes, and by upper-echelon administrators in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

To the activists, Hawkes' refusal came as a shock, considering that at least 15 among them have garnered federal citations for littering on that very same refuge. To date, two of those citations have landed group members in court; one member, Walt Staton, potentially faces nearly a month in federal prison. (See "Water Rights," Dec. 10.)

"Their interpretation about trash is confusing to us," says the Rev. Gene Lefebvre, a retired Presbyterian minister and No More Deaths' co-founder. On the one hand, they say that leaving water bottles is terrifically damaging to the environment. But on the other hand, they don't seem to be interested in the issue of trash.

"We proposed to them at the start of our negotiations that we would pick up at least twice as much trash as we would take in, and put that in containers where it could be measured," says Lefebvre. "But they announced that could not be part of the permit" to put out water.

Lefebvre sees a double standard at work; he says the refuge is littered with shell casings from hunters, and disposable plastic handcuffs left behind by the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Department.

Others think the government's rejection of the No More Deaths offer is about more than just litter. "We're not just talking about 10 people from the Sunday school" picking up trash, says Margo Cowan, an attorney for the group. "We're talking about a couple of thousand volunteers. And (Fish and Wildlife) just outright shut that down. I don't think they're acting in good faith."

But Tom Harvey, the agency's refuge supervisor for Arizona and New Mexico, calls those claims farfetched. Harvey participated in discussions with the group, and says Fish and Wildlife simply wants keep the litter discussion separate from the permit process." If No More Deaths wants to schedule several litter pickup days on the refuge using their volunteers, we're perfectly willing and happy to work with them on that. We do similar type of activities with other volunteer groups on the refuge all the time. We just did not want to link litter pickup with this permit. We felt that needed to be handled as a separate kind of project."

Harvey also disputes Cowan's characterization of government motives. "I don't think we would be going down this long of a road and have these involved, protracted discussions with them if we didn't have a commitment to try to issue this permit," he says, adding that the process for granting No More Deaths that permit is on track, with only the size of the water jugs remaining to be hashed out.

However, Lefebvre says that after three face-to-face meetings—the last occurring two months ago—Fish and Wildlife cancelled further parleys in lieu of negotiations by e-mail. "They thought that was enough. But trying to work out these details like the containers. ... It would be a lot easier to sit down to discuss what the problems are and possible solutions than to be back and forth on e-mail."

Another snub came in the form of an elaborate memorandum of understanding compiled by activists that was quickly brushed aside by Fish and Wildlife. Meant to be a substitute for a regular permit application, it included the trash pickup proposal, along with a broader acknowledgement of No More Deaths' role on the border. The document notes that "hundreds of children, women and men die every year crossing the Arizona desert," and that the "United States Department of the Interior acknowledges that this is an extraordinary situation which warrants extraordinary intervention strategies." It then urges the DOI to "issue no more citations for activities conducted pursuant to the memorandum of agreement." No More Deaths also offered to establish a formalized trash-pickup regimen and provide quarterly reports regarding the number of water bottles left and retrieved.

The document was prompted by talks between group members and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar this summer in Washington, D.C. Lefebvre was among those who met with Salazar. Now he wonders why those discussions derailed.

"The secretary is the one who invited us back to D.C. and got these negotiations started," Lefebvre says. "And I think that he is concerned about migrants dying on the (refuge), but he's been leaving most of it in the hands of Mike Hawkes. And we'd like to call it to the secretary's attention that these negotiations are being slowed down."

Hawkes says the decision regarding a water permit isn't only his to make. "The higher-ups are in" on the negotiations, he says. "They have to sign off on it."

Echoing Harvey, he says that the size of water containers is the only sticking point; Hawkes favors 5-gallon jugs that can be chained to trees.

In the meantime, that elaborate memorandum has apparently disappeared into the bowels of bureaucracy. "The memorandum of agreement that they drafted and proposed to us was between No More Deaths and the entire Department of the Interior," says Harvey. "That would be totally Byzantine, and overkill. That is not the way to issue a permit for this kind of activity on a national wildlife refuge. What you do is just write a letter requesting a permit from the refuge, and we proceed with negotiations 1-on-1 between No More Deaths and the Fish and Wildlife Service. That's how we responded to the MOU."

Further complicating the situation, Harvey says, is that the group's subsequent permit application requested the placement of 1-gallon jugs, after the 5-gallon jugs had already been agreed upon.

But a frustrated Cowan doesn't think that a permit should even be required under these circumstances. "Thousands of people walk across that refuge," she says. "Hundreds of Border Patrol officers walk and drive all sorts of vehicles across that terrain. They just will not acknowledge the true situation that exists right now.

"No matter how stringent of a border-protection person you are, that should not mean configuring situations so that people suffer until they die."