For months Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee have claimed that environmental regulations are hampering border control in the Southwest. But a new study notes that "there are numerous examples" of how various federal agencies are working together on securing the border.
"Despite the challenges and conflicts that can make such cooperation difficult, there are numerous examples of how the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and its agencies have been working together with the U.S Department of the Interior and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and their land management agencies on our southern border," writes Kirk Emerson, PhD, in Interagency Cooperation on U.S.-Mexico Border Wilderness Issues (attached below).
"After a slow start and much trial and error, cooperation among federal departments and agencies charged with protection of the border and wilderness areas has been improving in the past few years," adds Ms. Emerson, a consultant based in Tucson, Arizona. "Departmental leadership has issued several policy directives and put in place organizational mechanisms that have created a framework for collaboration and conflict resolution among the departments and their respective agencies on the ground."
But Republican members of the House Natural Resource Committee have portrayed the border region largely as a deadly, lawless area because the U.S. Border Patrol has been hamstrung by agencies wielding environmental regulations that restrict its ability to operate efficiently and sufficiently.
"Serious security gaps exist on federal lands along the northern and southern U.S. border. While the goal of the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture is to protect our national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and other public lands, internal documents have shown that DOI land managers are using environmental regulations (such as the Endangered Species Act or the National Environmental Policy Act) to hinder U.S. Border Patrol security efforts," the Republicans state on their web site. "For example, Border Patrol is often blocked access to these lands, unable to use motorized vehicles to patrol these areas, and prevented from placing electronic surveillance structures in strategic areas.
"As a result, our federal lands have become a highway open to criminals, drugs smugglers, human traffickers and potentially terrorists. This has led to escalated violence and also caused severe destruction of the environment."
In some of his re-election campaign materials Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, perhaps the most outspoken Republican on the committee when it comes to public lands issues, argues that border security should "not be hampered by absurd environmental regulations."
But in the study Ms. Emerson prepared at the request of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation and the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance she cites many examples of Interior and Agriculture department personnel working with Border Patrol representatives to enhance border security, efforts they are achieving under the current regulatory structure.
One case study she cited came from Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
"In the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, USBP has provided air support with their helicopters to assist NPS law enforcement operations," she points out, and also notes that in the monument Park Service officials "assisted USBP in placement of a mobile surveillance unit that minimized impacts to the environment as well as entry into wilderness and at the same time provided USBP with needed vantage points for surveillance."
Additionally, at Big Bend National Park "housing for USBP agents is being constructed ... to improve USBP presence and park safety."
Personnel from the Border Patrol and Interior Department that she interviewed also spoke highly of their collaborations.
We cooperate well. We communicate well and with DOI we have had a great deal of communication over the last several years. With the border fence we had a deadline and absolutely desperately needed their help and they stepped up and helped. That has not stopped. USBP Official
DHS bends over backwards to accommodate us; not that they don’t make mistakes, but the DC office is fully cooperating - trying to change their culture through environmental awareness and education and training as they quadruple in size, lots of cultural change. They are fully committed to the environmental issues. DOI Law Enforcement Officer
In her report, published in September, Ms. Emerson also noted that:
* In 2006, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument put up 23 miles of vehicle barriers that significantly reduced such vehicle activity and as a result assisted USBP in its operations. In Texas, USBP worked with the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge to install, secure and lock new gates to deter illegal vehicular traffic on the refuge and place rock barricades on an adjacent track in Anzalduas State Park to cut off a well-used route for traffickers taking stolen heavy trucks back across the border to Mexico. FWS worked with the City of Hidalgo and USBP to install security screen over a drain pipe that had served as popular access through the refuge for smugglers near the City of Hidalgo, Texas.
* Much of the southwestern wilderness is only accessible on foot or horseback. FWS shares its equestrian facility with USBP for access into Cabeza Prieta Wilderness. The National Park Service (NPS) set up a pullout site on Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument to accommodate horse trailers and vehicles to support USBP’s horse patrol operations. Buenos Aires NWR worked with USBP to develop a 3-acre horse facility for USBP’s horse patrol unit. Land management equestrian staff has assisted with training USBP agents in horse patrolling.
* Along the two stretches of the U.S.-Mexico border bounded by rivers, there have been areas where the riparian vegetation is so dense it has provided good cover for border crossers and smugglers and made it difficult for USBP agents to monitor crossing activity. In several incidences, this vegetation has been hardy invasive species that are also choking out native trees and shrubs. FWS in Texas assisted USBP in removing dense stands of Carrizo Cane, which grows up to 30 feet high in several locations along the border, including Big Bend National Park. Removing the cane not only improved sight lines for USBP agents, but was also beneficial for the river’s riparian ecosystem.
* One of the central electronic surveillance projects for the Secure Border Initiatives, the SBInet Ajo-1 Tower Project, has been the result of considerable collaboration among USBP and public land agencies. The interagency consultation on that project over the past two years has led to a reduction in the number of proposed surveillance towers from 33 to eight, all of which are to be located outside of the wilderness areas while still maintaining the operational needs of USBP. In addition, this project is likely to include a significant mitigation package which will include restoration measures for Sonoran pronghorn and lesser long-nosed bat conservation in the wilderness areas of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.
"In sum," writes Ms. Emerson, "there are numerous opportunities for interagency cooperation along the border, many of which have been and continue to be exercised. While the above is not intended as a complete list of cooperative efforts, it is also not meant to suggest that conflicts or tensions between USBP and federal land management agencies do not exist in border wilderness areas. Difficulties and disagreements can occur when carrying out these complex and interdependent national priorities. Nonetheless, this array of cooperative activities belies any suggestion that interagency cooperation is either not possible or is not taking place along the U.S-Mexico border in wilderness areas."
Ms. Emerson, who works in environmental conflict resolution and is a policy research associate at The University of Arizona’s School of Government and Public Policy and the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, also pointed out that U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-New Mexico, since 2009 has worked with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Border Patrol to carefully craft legislation that would create a more substantial buffer zone "between the border and the Potrillo Mountains’ southern wilderness boundary, particularly one further north of the east-west highway that is the southern boundary of the existing WSA."
Those efforts produced a bill calling for a 16,525-acre “restricted use zone” that "would not allow motorized use by the public, but would allow it for administrative purposes, including law enforcement activities by USBP. Within this zone, USBP would also be able to place surveillance and other enforcement-related infrastructure as needed."
"Other modifications were made as well, including the designation of a restricted administrative east-west road through the wilderness further north to aid USBP surveillance and pursuits, allowing low-level overflights over the wilderness areas for law enforcement purposes, and excluding an additional site needed for a critical communications tower from the proposed wilderness," Ms. Emerson wrote.
That legislation has unanimously passed out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and was awaiting full Senate action, she added.