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.


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You might imagine that all this would attract legions of concerned environmentalists. But in fact, the green groups are paying less attention now than during the court battles over the waivers. One reason: They can no longer use their primary strategy – "sue the bastards," says one lawyer. "Funding is tight for a lot of groups; you have to pick a niche, and the border is a difficult issue to raise funds around," adds Matt Clark, who worked on the issue for Defenders of Wildlife in Tucson from 2006 to last year. Clark, who's now with the Audubon Society, says that he left Defenders when his job was "reconfigured" to focus on other issues.

And it's not just tight funds and a sense of hopelessness; immigration policy is a complicated issue for environmentalists. A leader of a foundation that funds environmental groups, who would also prefer not to be named, points out that the movement didn't squawk when undocumented immigrants began trashing the desert 10 or 20 years ago. "It ran against the groups' liberal politics in support of immigration," the funder says. Complaining about the impacts of that traffic "would've been politically incorrect."

On the other hand, some environmentalists want the border to be impenetrable, because undocumented immigrants help drive U.S. population growth, and growth in general causes widespread loss of habitat and biodiversity. "The Wilderness Society and other national groups have been quite scared of this issue. Some of their members and donors think national security is the issue here," says Sergio Avila, a pony-tailed Mexican native who's a biologist with Tucson-based Sky Island Alliance, a group that tries to connect habitat across the border. "No one gives us money" to focus on the environmental impacts of border security, Avila says.

Meanwhile, though the pace of constructing walls and fences has slowed, there's relentless pressure on the Border Patrol to make the border secure regardless of impacts. During a 2011 congressional hearing, for instance, two Utah Republicans, Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Rob Bishop, complained that the Border Patrol was still hobbled by environmental concerns. "This is totally unacceptable," Chaffetz said. Legislators in both major parties are pushing bills to expand the waivers to cover all lands at least a hundred miles from the border. The Democratic-controlled Senate passed a bill last year that would spend another $47 billion to hire more than 19,000 additional Border Patrol agents and complete the barriers along 700 miles of the border, among other measures. (That's on top of the $187 billion that's been spent on immigration enforcement since 1986, as estimated by the Migration Policy Institute.)

"With national security, there can never be enough – there's always another hole to patch," says George Nickas, head of Montana-based Wilderness Watch, who toured the Arizona border in 2012.

The environmentalists, desert rats and scientists I talk with want the government to adopt a different strategy – but they don't agree on what it should be. One camp says: Rein in the Border Patrol, welcome immigrants with good records, and help improve the economies of Mexico and Central America to create more jobs there. Some add: Reform U.S. drug policies to legalize marijuana, reducing the incentive for smugglers. "We should attack the root causes, the reasons why people have to move here for jobs," Avila says, "and leave the environment out of it." Another camp says: Just concentrate the Border Patrol's activities within a mile of the border, sacrificing the environment in that limited area, and leave the backcountry alone. "That would be a better trade-off," says former Organ Pipe Cactus Superintendent Baiza, "than having the whole (wilderness) mired in this off-road activity."

Another day, and I'm bumping down and up rough dirt roads in extremely rugged national forest in the Pajarito and Atascosa mountains, four miles from the border, with Avila and Howard Frederick, a Sky Island Alliance board member. Amid oaks and tall grass, we weave between designated and proposed wilderness areas. Everywhere we go, we see Border Patrol vehicles and agents. Their agency has bladed pullouts, side roads, even a campsite. Sky Island maintains four remote cameras in wildlife corridors in this area, and "we see more Border Patrol agents on the wildlife cameras than any other humans," Frederick says. Avila chimes in, "The cameras show how the agents ride their ATVs in the riparian areas."

The wildlife in this national forest includes tropical birds that migrate from Central America, a big colony of Mexican free-tailed bats that roost in a mine tunnel during the summer (as many as 150,000 at a time), and snakes that somehow hang from the tunnel's ceiling to snatch flying bats. A sizable deer population attracts jaguars roaming from Mexico – Avila's passion. A few of these elusive wildcats have been detected just north of the border since 1996, and most of the jaguar photos and paw prints are right in this area. But jaguars are shy, and the security measures are especially hard on them. "The jaguar is telling us where it belongs," says Avila, who speaks with a Mexican accent and sometimes seems to spout poetry. "We should listen to the animals." He adds, "The fear is harming the spirituality of nature that is so important to people."

My last day here is spent on the ground I saw from above on my earlier plane flight. My escort is 75-year-old Fred Goodsell, a leading expert on Border Patrol off-road driving and an old friend of the ornery Southwest writer, Ed Abbey. A classic desert rat, Goodsell wears a sun-reflecting white cotton shirt and white pants, and drives a white four-wheel-drive pickup loaded with jugs of water. Retired from a career managing public land and water around the West, he winters in a small town near the border, and knows this ground probably better than anyone, because he's hiked more than 2,500 miles in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge alone.

For nine hours, Goodsell drives me over the dirt roads through Cabeza Prieta, Organ Pipe Cactus and the adjacent public land. Much of the time we're on the notorious El Camino del Diablo, blazed by Indians long ago. On washboards that rattle our teeth, we pass through one distinctive area after another, defined by stands of huge saguaro and organ pipe cactus, or ocotillo and cholla, or vast creosote flats. Occasionally we stop to walk through the desert, especially where the normally stingy plants are briefly offering their flowers. We see woodpeckers, quail, roadrunners and hawks. Goodsell talks about the Sonoran pronghorn and desert bighorn sheep that he's observed here – one of the main reasons Congress designated more than 90 percent of the refuge and monument as wilderness decades ago.

Other than tire tracks, the only traces of humans all day are two historic shacks (unoccupied), two industrial-looking Border Patrol forward operating bases, one civilian truck – apparently a propane delivery – and lots of Border Patrol vehicles in motion. One stops beside us, so the agent can check us out. The agent says, "You're the first people I've seen in three days" – meaning, the first people not dressed in Border Patrol uniforms.

We see hundreds of tire tracks veering off through the wilderness and other backcountry, and many side roads carved by repeated driving. Border Patrol vehicles have also cut arcs outward from both sides of the authorized roads by turning around without backing up (in apparent violation of the promise made in the 2013 "intergovernmental" meeting in Tucson, which Goodsell also attended). They've carved ruts wallowing through sand and mud, driven all over looking for a way across washes and sandy playas that were temporarily flooded. We find places where they've gotten stuck, spun tires and wedged branches under their tires, and so on.

It's difficult to tell whether the agents are driving on tracks blazed years ago by border-crossers, or following tracks started years ago by other agents, or making new tracks as they go. Some of the off-road tracks are definitely fresh. Goodsell says the aerial surveys detect only a fraction of the off-road and renegade driving in the wilderness areas; he estimates the actual total is more like 25,000 miles. "There's no other vehicles out here, other than the Border Patrol," Goodsell says. "They're just hammering this place!"

We kneel down to appreciate some of the best desert soil: The so-called "desert pavement," where the wind has blown away all the fine grains, leaving many tiny stones that form a shallow crust, and the "cryptobiotic" soil, where cultures of hardy fungus and algae grow in little grayish-black clumps, retaining enough moisture from dew and occasional rains to hold things together. We find places where the tire tracks cross these soils too, doing very long-term damage.

It's a melancholy tour, and at dusk, we shake hands and I begin driving back to Tucson on the two-lane asphalt. I spend additional hours crossing the Tohono O'odham Reservation, where the tribal radio station plays reggae tunes that mostly originated in Jamaica – the kind of global border crossing no security measures can stop. I'm about the only person on the road, and the feeling is familiar. Above the windshield, bright stars compete with a half moon.

The speed limit varies from 55 to 65, as the road curves and dips through washes. I average about 5 mph over the limit, the margin allowed citizen drivers. Every so often, headlights approach from behind and tailgate me, lighting up the interior of my car, and then zoom past: one Border Patrol SUV after another. They don't appear to be responding to an emergency, just heading back to their bigger bases near Tucson for a shift change. The agents are driving at least 10 mph over the limit, and they know they can get away with it.

Ray Ring, an HCN senior editor based in Montana, knows the desert from the 15 years he lived in Tucson.

This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.

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