Borderland Blowout

Groups allege that the Border Patrol is trashing our public lands

The video is damning: Vast stretches of Southern Arizona's public lands are shown ravaged by miles of renegade roads. According to the Sierra Club and the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, the culprits include hundreds of Border Patrol agents working the Arizona-Mexico line.

To conservationists, the story behind Too Many Tracks is one of needless destruction. (See it at

Nor is this damage limited to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument or the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, the two preserves highlighted in the film. "It's really going on borderwide," says Dan Millis of the Sierra Club, which produced Too Many Tracks. "The Border Patrol is being deployed in huge numbers with minimal respect for the environment, or training on how to step lightly on the environment. And it's really hard for these land managers to get the information out there, especially when their superiors feel hogtied by Homeland Security."

He's referring to the federal Department of Homeland Security, parent agency of Customs and Border Protection and the Border Patrol. Indeed, that department does seem impregnable; for more than a week, I tried to obtain comment from the Border Patrol for this story. But a response never came.

Perhaps this silence can be traced to a Feb. 1 policy directive from William Brooks, CBP branch chief for the Southwest Border Media Division. "We will no longer provide interviews, ride-alongs, visits etc. about the border, the state of the border and what have you," Brooks wrote in the memo to his underlings. "Should you get a request, inform the reporter that you will see what you can do and get back to them. Then send it to me.

"On Monday or Tuesday or someday," Brooks continued, "we will have a statement that we will provide in lieu of these other activities."

The memo certainly leads one to wonder whether similar arrogance prevails in CBP's relations with land managers.

Apparently so, says Cyndi Tuell, a Southwest conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. She points to a "training guide" provided for agents being deployed to sensitive wildlands. The guide is chockablock with vapid homilies such as this: "CPB is committed to conducting our activities" in a "culturally responsible manner. You must focus on your mission, but you also need (to safeguard) public lands and the laws that protect them. Public lands contain precious natural and cultural resources. There can be consequences if you aren't a good steward."

That last point—and its apparent impotence—sticks in Tuell's craw. She argues that the concerns of land agencies such as the National Park Service, which administers Organ Pipe, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees Cabeza Prieta, are routinely ignored by gung-ho Border Patrol officials.

This persists, claims Tuell, despite a 2006 agreement between those agencies and the Department of Homeland Security that details terms of cooperation. "It doesn't appear that Fish and Wildlife is able to get the Border Patrol to work within the agreement they have," she says. "Especially on the Cabeza Prieta, off-road driving by Border Patrol vehicles is uncontrolled. We're seeing doughnuts (on the desert floor) that appear to be from recreational riding. No one appears able to rein in the Border Patrol on this issue."

Federal law restricts vehicle traffic on the 860,000-acre preserve southwest of Tucson to a handful of existing roadways, including the ancient El Camino del Diablo.

However, Tuell says Fish and Wildlife's own analysis, conducted in 2011, reveals that the Cabeza Prieta—which ranks as the third-largest refuge in the continental United States—contains no fewer than 8,000 miles of illegal roads. Conservationists contend that this traffic puts particular stress on a small, highly endangered population of Sonoran pronghorn.

She also says that a recently created map now used by Border Patrol agents lists a road in the refuge that was never properly authorized as required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The Weekly was unable to obtain the map to verify Tuell's claim. However, Cabeza Prieta manager Sid Slone argues that the road in question—called Los Vidrios—was carved out by Mexican smugglers more than a decade ago and is now routinely driven by Border Patrol agents. "The road is there," he says. "It's not creating a new road. They were using that road in operations before I got here and I was not going to tell them not to use that road."

Another contentious point involves Border Patrol agents pursuing smugglers and illegal immigrants deep into wilderness areas on both preserves. According to the 2006 agreement, "as soon as practicable after each such motorized off-road pursuit, CBP-BP will provide the local Federal land manager with a brief report."

But many times, it's apparently never "practicable' for the Border Patrol to document its activities in these wilderness areas, which comprise 94 percent of Organ Pipe, and 93 percent of the Cabeza Prieta. "We're not seeing the incursion reports turned in on the same scale that we're seeing the incursions occurring," says Millis of the Sierra Club.

"Challenging" is how Organ Pipe superintendent Lee Baiza describes the task of getting those incursion reports in a regular and timely fashion. However, "we continuously work with the Border Patrol to ensure that it's a step that takes place," he says. "They are cooperating at this point in time."

Over at the Cabeza Prieta, manager Slone says the Border Patrol has become more diligent about submitting reports to him. "I think they're doing a better job of complying than they used to. I really can't compel them to, except to identify any issues that come up that I'm aware of."

In the meantime, both managers say the Border Patrol has spent more than $1 million to mitigate impacts from security accouterments, such as surveillance towers on Organ Pipe, or mishaps that include a diesel spill on the Cabeza Prieta.

Still, conservationists worry that the very remoteness of these preserves, coupled with the overwhelming power of Homeland Security, mean these public lands will continue to be sacrificed in the name of border protection.

To Tuell, daunting barriers built along the southern flanks of Organ Pipe and Cabeza Prieta are paradoxical reminders of what's at stake. "Those walls were installed to stop vehicle traffic from Mexico," she says. "Ironically, we're now having Border Patrol destroy that very land with their own vehicles. There are too many of them, they don't have enough to do, and there's no training to help them understand the impacts they're having."

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