As part of a sweeping new initiative to fight illegal immigration and drug smuggling, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is pushing to give the U.S. Border Patrol regular motorized access to more than 330,000 acres of wilderness along the Mexican border.
The Border Patrol wants unlimited cross-country access by motorcycle, the ability to build four roads, and permission to use off-road vehicles on trails illegally created by smugglers in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, 95 percent of which is officially designated wilderness. The initiative also affects Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area.
Kevin Fitzgerald, the chief ranger for the National Park Service’s Intermountain Region, agrees that the hundreds of miles of illegal trails accessed by armed smugglers create significant environmental and safety issues. In August 2002, a park ranger was shot and killed in Organ Pipe as he pursued a Mexican national who had driven through a border fence (HCN, 4/1/02: Wheels still open after desert lockdown).
Still, Fitzgerald says, "The amount of access the Border Patrol is asking for is unprecedented," and so he has sent Park Service employees scrambling to address a smorgasbord of requests. The required environmental assessment for the initiative could be completed by the end of August, he says, but the Border Patrol wants to move on the plan immediately.
Tim Mahoney, a legal consultant for the Campaign for America’s Wilderness, says the Wilderness Act allows motorized access for addressing emergency land-management issues, but permanent roads or structures in wilderness would be illegal. He says that even when it comes to matters of national security, the law gives the environment due process.
"All agencies involved are legally required to work together to find the ‘minimum tool’ available for solving this problem," says Mahoney.