Disorder at the Border

[This article was originally published in the June 27 issue of Human Events newspaper.]

An endangered pronghorn antelope wears a collar as part of a recovery program in the Sonoran Desert.

As we earlier reported (June 13 Human Events page 12), Environmental rules are hampering Border Patrol operations near the Mexican border, even as the agency doles out millions in taxpayer dollars meant to offset damage to endangered species.

Because of a pond inhabited by endangered pupfish, Border Patrol officers can use their vehicles to pursue illegal aliens only if the chase stays on the main road. If the pursuit veers into a 42-acre sector near the pond, officers must continue the chase on foot or horseback.

Pupfish aren’t the only critters confounding the Border Patrol. There’s also the Chiricahua leopard frog, Mexican spotted owl, lesser long-nosed bat, Pima pineapple cactus and Sonoran Pronghorn antelope.

And then there’s a small cat called the ocelot that some critics say hasn’t even been seen in the area for 15 years.

Border Patrol agents can’t drive vehicles into designated Wilderness areas, as well as certain areas of national parks and monuments.

Agreements between the Homeland Security and Interior Departments on how best to protect the ecosystem are frustrating lawmakers who say they also prevent agents from conducting routine patrols.

Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) has committed or spent more than $9.8 million for environmental mitigation and the price tag could go as high as $50 million, according to a document obtained by Human Events.

“CBP has expended considerable funding directly on mitigation and related activities, such as surveys and habitat restoration,” according to the Homeland Security document responding to a congressional inquiry.

Fiscal year 2008 is listed as one example. “ CBP expended more than $8 million on surveys and mitigation efforts to benefit 33 species listed as threatened or endangered,” the document said.

Included in the price tag: $2.1 million for the cats, $980,000 for the bats and $811,000 for the pronghorn.

Drug cartels and other criminals could care less about trampling through a protected species’ habitat, Rep. Rob Bishop (R.-Utah) told Human Events.

“They would just as soon eat an endangered species as protect it,” Bishop said.

The Wilderness Act prohibits the Border Patrol from entering 4.3 million wilderness acres in a vehicle or by helicopter.

The Mexican spotted owl is just one of the endangered species along the border that is being protected at the expense of our border agents’ safety.

Bats and Fish Trump Security

“If you ask the supervisors and managers if this has an impact on operations, they will tell you, ‘Hell yes,’” said Kent Lundgren, communications manager of the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers.

The Border Patrol respects the desire of environmental groups and land managers to protect environmental species, Lundgren said.

“But along the border, national security and public safety ought to trump anything else,” Lundgren said.

Environmentalists disagree.

They argue that border patrols can negatively affect the environment, including loss of foraging habitat, disturbance from nighttime lights and noise associated with construction of towers and border fences, generators and helicopter landings.

And the government agrees, so far the Homeland Security Department has forked over $8 million to the Interior Department to mitigate impacts from fence construction and other security measures.

According to those agencies, a large chunk of that money will fund studies on threatened or endangered fish, sheep and bats.

The Interior Department (DOI) also wants $22 million to purchase land for the ocelot, saying fence construction noise and lighting along the Lower Rio Grande would negatively affect the species, according to a congressional aide.

The last-known sighting of the ocelot was in 1996, the aide added.

More than 95% of all species that have ever existed are now extinct, according to the Danish environmental author, Bjorn Lomborg.

And in the U.S. there is actually a process that would allow an endangered species to become extinct. It’s called the “God Squad.”

It’s comprised of seven cabinet-level members, including the secretaries of Interior, Army and Agriculture and has the authority to allow extinction by exempting federal agencies from environmental laws.

Is it likely to happen?

“The halls of the Interior Department are filled with environmental extremists,” Rep. Devin Nunes (R.-Calif.) said. “They will find any type of habitat or creature they can to make a case to stop job creation and use of federal land.”

Despite the commitment of Homeland Security to spending $50 million to offset environmental damage, Republicans in Congress have taken the first step to pull the plug on this funding.

Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R.-Wyo.) successfully added an amendment June 2 to the Homeland Security spending bill that blocks Interior from buying more land for species protection.

“DOI policies have it backwards. Our nation’s security should be our top priority,” Lummis said.

“Inhibiting the Border Patrol’s access to federal lands enables criminal activity that impacts America’s border towns and filters up to states like Wyoming. The persistent illegal traffic is the real burden on the wildlife and ecology of these public lands, which we could protect more effectively if we just let the Border Patrol do its job,” Lummis said.

An October 2010 report by the Government accountability Office (GAO) concedes that “certain land-management laws present some challenges to Border Patrol’s operations on federal lands, limiting to varying degrees the agency’s access to patrol and monitor some areas.”

“With limited access for patrols and monitoring, some illegal entries may go undetected,” the GAO said.

The GAO also acknowledges that the Border Patrol’s presence is “needed to protect natural and cultural resources on federal lands because, for instance, fewer illegal entries mean less human traffic over environmentally sensitive areas.”

And ultimately, when the federal government has to choose between protecting the border and protecting the environment, it chooses the environment.

The two-inch, bluish pupfish lives in the Quitobaquito Pond and spring channel in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument West of Tucson, Ariz.

U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) vehicles have been cited numerous times for driving over a berm that impounds the pupfish pond.

“Driving on the berm could cause its partial collapse or deterioration,” according to a consultation document between the Border Patrol and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

Protecting Pupfish

“If the integrity of the berm is compromised, much or all of the pond could be lost if the berm collapses. Even if the berm does not collapse, driving on it could cause deterioration, resulting in materials spilling into the pond, decreasing its volume, reducing habitat for pupfish and requiring additional work to repair and reinforce it,” the document says. “These activities would likely result in mortality of pupfish and, at least temporarily, reduce the population.”

The document also notes one incident when a border patrol agent drove an ATV over the channel several times. Although no damage was done, the Fish and Wildlife Service devised a scenario that could kill the fish.

“If the concrete channel was broken or damaged, water could be diverted from the channel, resulting in dewatering of the spring channel and possible lowering or drying of the pond. Pupfish inhabiting the channel downstream of the break could desiccate and die under this scenario,” the consultation memo says.

“A worse outcome would be if a USBP vehicle slid into the pond, either due to collapse of the berm or driving too close to the edge, followed by accidental slippage off the berm and into the pond. Contaminants in the form of oil or other vehicle fluids could cause mortality of pupfish, and again, any remedy of this situation would threaten the integrity of the berm and likely result in additional mortality of pupfish,” the consultation said.

Border Patrol agents are no longer allowed to drive motorized vehicles into the area unless the life or safety of an officer or cross-border violator (CBV) is in danger.

“USBP may access any portion of Quitobaquito by foot or on horseback at any time necessary to patrol or to pursue and apprehend cross-border violators,” the memo says. There are strict conditions set on use of the horses as well, which must be given a “weed-free-feed” so that its feces do not contaminate the ecosystem of the park.

If the horses are actually kept there, the Border Patrol must “avoid contamination of ground and surface waters by removing animal waste from areas where horses are housed and disposing of it at an appropriate waste facility,” the document says.

The next battle between the Border Patrol and environmentalists is brewing over an endangered bird species, the Southwestern willow flycatcher.

The enviros want the Border Patrol to scrap plans to mow vegetation four times a year along 91 miles of the Rio Grande, because of this and hundreds of other bird species.

The Border Patrol wants to keep the vegetation below two feet so agents can actually see illegal aliens crossing through the area.

Also along the Rio Grande in South Texas, the GAO said that border patrols, portable and permanent lights, along with clearing of vegetation, have “reduced the amount of habitat suitable for the endangered ocelot.”

Lawmakers are frustrated over the territorial battles between the government agencies that are charged with protecting the environment and protecting the border.

They say federal land managers are using environmental regulations to block the Border Patrol from accessing protected portions within 21 million acres on the Southern border and 1,000 miles along the Canadian border.

A U.S. Border Patrol agent looking through binoculars.

Increasing Violence

The result is an escalation of violence throughout an area that is now open to criminals, drug smugglers, human traffickers and potential terrorists.

Congressional staffers say illegal aliens know exactly where the Border Patrol can and cannot patrol in their vehicles.

“National parks and forests have become some of the most dangerous and violent areas along the border, where shootings, robberies, rapes, murders, kidnappings and carjackings frequently occur,” according to a report by the House Committee on Natural Resources.

In March 2010, Arizona rancher Rob Krentz was shot and killed by someone who had illegally entered the country through the San Bernardino Wildlife Refuge, the committee said.

Border Patrol Agent Luis Aguilar was killed by a hit-and-run driver who crossed the border though the Imperial Sand Dunes in January 2008 and a park ranger was shot
and killed in 2002 while pursuing members of a Mexican drug cartel through the Organ Pipe National Monument.

Led by Bishop, key Republicans in the House and Senate are pursuing legislation called the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act that would prohibit the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture from taking action on public lands that would impede border security.

The bill would also give the Homeland Security secretary immediate access to any public lands managed by the federal government to secure the border, trumping past agreements between the agencies.

“The drug cartels, prostitution rings, kidnappers and who knows what else, they don’t sign these memos of understanding and they don’t care about these arbitrary rules that don’t make any sense on the border,” Bishop said.

Even more frustrating, Bishop said, Border Patrol has unlimited access across private property to chase illegal aliens.

“They are allowed to do their jobs on private property and no one blinks an eye, but on public property, there is a brouhaha,” Bishop said.

“When the Border Patrol has to go to federal land managers and beg for permission to do their jobs, that is no longer acceptable,” Bishop said.

Rep. Peter T. King (R.-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, says the “senseless practice” also leaves the U.S. vulnerable to terrorists.

“We cannot allow the Obama Administration’s Interior Department to use environmental regulations to hinder front-line Border Patrol agents’ critical mission of securing our border from illegal immigrants, including potential terrorists,” King said.

But the measure faces opposition from environmental groups who say off-road driving, stadium lighting and other activities threaten the culture and environment in protected areas.

Tourists Warned

“These bills have been introduced solely to satisfy the radical whims of a small minority of anti-environmental extremists in Congress,” said Jenny Neeley, conservation director of the liberal Sky Island Alliance.

The Border Patrol already works effectively with federal land managers, and no changes are needed, said Matt Clark, spokesman for Defenders of Wildlife in Tucson. The proof, Clark insisted, is in the reduction of apprehensions of illegal aliens—down by two-thirds over the last decade.

“Protections for endangered wildlife, water and clean air are not standing in the way of border security,” Clark said.

A spokesman for the Homeland Security Department said they do not comment on pending legislation, but that they are “fully committed to collaborating with Interior and the USFS[U.S. Forest Service] to find workable solutions on special-status lands.”

“DHS [the Department of Homeland Security] works closely with Interior and USFS to fulfill its enforcement responsibilities while respecting the environment,” said spokesman Matt Chandler.

“While manpower, money and technology are always on demand at the border, access has become critical,” Bishop said.

And where there is a lack of law enforcement presence, tourists are being warned not to go into the areas, because of illegal alien criminals and drug runners.

“I understand why DHS wants to put a good spin on it, and put their best face forward, but the bottom line is public land has become the choice entrance for the bad guys,” Bishop said. “So far, the Interior Department’s solutions are signs that say some areas are off-limits to Americans because it’s too dangerous,” he added.

The signs have since been removed, but not before the House committee obtained photos of one posted by the Bureau of Land Management warning visitors to avoid certain areas.

“Danger—public warning, travel not recommended,” one sign reads. “Active drug and human smuggling area. Visitors may encounter armed criminals and smuggling vehicles traveling at high rates of speed.”

The Web page for the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument still carries a warning for visitors and a reminder that it’s located 30 miles from the border: “Each year, hundreds of people travel North through the park, entering the United States. It is possible you could encounter an individual or small group trying to walk through the park with little or no water.”

The warning advises visitors to report that activity to park rangers because “lack of water is a life-threatening emergency in the desert.”

The park also notes that “visitors should be aware that drug-smuggling routes pass through the park,” and says such activity should be reported by calling 911.

According to the GAO, 3,500 acres in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona were closed to the public in 2006 after five illegal aliens were murdered in the area. Since 2007, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge has required law enforcement escorts for staff and volunteers because of the dangers posed by illegal  aliens. In 2009, the South Texas Refuge Complex reported that many refuge tracts adjacent to the Rio Grande were closed to visitors, in part because of illegal immigration, human smuggling and drug runners, the GAO reported.


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