Border out of control

National security runs roughshod over the Arizona wild.

  • A Border Patrol vehicle kicks up dust in the Coyote Mountains Wilderness, just north of the Mexican border, near Tucson.

    Gary Knight/VII
  • A Border Patrol vehicle makes tracks in the denuded desert at the border fence near Yuma, Arizona.

    David McNew/Getty Images
  • Mule deer blocked by the border fence through Arizona's San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area.

    The Sierra Club
  • Dan Millis of the Sierra Club at a shrine that marks the site where he found the body of 14-year-old El Salvadoran border-crosser Josseline Hernandez.

    Krista Schlyer
  • John Ladd, a fourth-generation Arizona cattle rancher, at the border wall that runs along his property.

    Will Seberger
  • A family of Gambel's quail turns away from the border wall in the San Pedro National Riparian Corridor in Arizona.

    Krista Schlyer
  • A cougar races along the pedestrian barrier in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. Apparently, her cub had squeezed through.

  • Border Patrol agents detain suspected undocumented immigrants in January near Sells, Arizona, on the Tohono O'odham Indian Nation.

    Will Seberger
  • Tracks mar the desert landscape in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.


From a small plane flying only 1,500 feet above the Arizona desert on a hazy February day, the landscape appears as beautiful as it is inhospitable. The sandy dirt glows in psychedelic orange and yellow, and the little mountain ranges southwest of Tucson look like bristly cactus transformed into stone, thrusting upward to nearly touch the plane. There are few signs of human activity until we approach the Mexican border, where Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, two huge conservation areas, supposedly protect more than a million acres of federally designated wilderness.

"There's one," Cyndi Tuell, a conservationist lawyer, explains over the headset. She has her long reddish hair rubber-banded into pigtails, and her forearm tattoo commemorates Rachel Carson's courageous 1960s Silent Spring broadside against pesticides. Pointing out her window, she adds, "And another one – do you see it?" Quickly the number grows: "Five, six ... 10, 12 ... This really pisses me off. It's worse than I thought."

Tuell is counting "renegade roads" – the vehicle tracks shooting off in all directions from the few legal roads. At least 10,000 miles of renegade roads have been carved into the wilderness areas that make up more than 90 percent of the total area of the monument and refuge – even though wilderness is, by law, supposed to be "untrammeled by man." It's probably the worst violation ever of the spirit of the 50-year-old Wilderness Act.

Even more surprising: Though smugglers and undocumented immigrants sneaking north from Mexico began creating renegade roads decades ago, these days most of them are made by U.S. Border Patrol agents trying to seal off the border. Below us, Border Patrol trucks and ATVs cut across the desert, generating a plume of dust. "A lot of these renegade roads are new," Tuell says. "Every time I fly here, I see more new ones."

Skittish desert bighorn sheep live in these wilderness areas, along with rare Sonoran pronghorn, desert tortoise and unnervingly large blond tarantulas. All of the local wildlife is stressed by the surge in Border Patrol traffic, which continues to bring noise, erosion and human presence to a once-remote corner of the West. Our pilot, Will Worthington – a gray-haired, semi-retired engineer with Lighthawk, a nonprofit conservationist flight service – circles the plane into Mexican air space and back, so we can see how the U.S. government has also fortified this border segment with walls and fences. The barriers further fragment wildlife habitat. Yet few people know about it, partly because most environmental groups shy away from the issue, wary of tangling with national security and immigration politics.

The handful of environmentalists who are involved – like Tuell, who is volunteering her time – can't even use their standard tool, litigation, because Congress has decided that environmental laws do not apply along the U.S.-Mexico border. It's a lopsided battle, fighting the militarized Border Patrol and the politicians who exploit anxiety over national security, and at times, Tuell says, "It seems hopeless." To me, the spiraling tire tracks on the Arizona desert resemble the ancient symbols inscribed into the deserts of Peru and Chile by people of the Nazca culture, more than a thousand years ago. The Nazca likely created their giant geometric shapes for religious purposes. But these Border Patrol designs, which will also persist for a long time, symbolize something darker: our 21st century fear and anger, and a burst of U.S. government lawlessness.

Rick & Mary Lee Reese
Rick & Mary Lee Reese Subscriber
Jun 09, 2014 09:07 PM
Once again, HCN steps up with the important stories that most mainline media are afraid to tackle. This is a story that should be told, and Ray Ring is a master of getting after it!
Daniel Watts
Daniel Watts Subscriber
Jun 11, 2014 08:25 AM
Thanks for the article. If we only could fence in the Border Patrol...
Howard Ahmanson
Howard Ahmanson Subscriber
Jun 11, 2014 05:45 PM
And this under Obama!
Dale Lockwood
Dale Lockwood Subscriber
Jun 12, 2014 09:02 PM
We need a tight border control. Sooner than later over population in this country will make us look like China. Sound rediculous. We are already over carrying capacity according to its definition which is a species is over carrying capacity when it does long term damage to its habitat.
Sally  Buttshaw
Sally Buttshaw Subscriber
Jun 14, 2014 01:56 AM
The border patrol definitely needs put a stop to those agents destroying the roads. And the environmental groups need new strategies other than litigation, more education to citizens living in the affected areas, might be the answer.
Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Jun 17, 2014 03:10 PM
Hey Ray, I know this desert from 35 years of living with it. I also know the disaster smuggling is precipitating on every square inch of it, whether urban or open desert. If you want to stop the BP from further degrading the environment, you'll have to stop the smugglers they chase.

You up for that?
The Taylors
The Taylors Subscriber
Jun 17, 2014 03:41 PM
I agree with d dedon. the problem is precipitated by smuggling/smugglers. I just did a drive through the cabeza prieta in early march this year. I did my previous drive through in 2003. from my view the cabeza prieta has "improved" since 2003. other than chasing aliens, smugglers and other lawbreakers, I believe the border patrol makes a lot of attempts to stay on xisting roads......
Alexander Clayton
Alexander Clayton Subscriber
Jun 25, 2014 09:13 PM
Good article. There are always government excuses for ignoring environmental concerns, civil rights concerns, etc. Getting to the root of the immigration problem, as mentioned (and as I've believed in for a long time), would cut down on illegal immigration and the 'need' to patrol for it, but we seem to like our self-propagating problems that 'require' some sort of "command and control" solution, don't we?