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for people who care about the West

Garbage grows well on the border


Another couple of steps, and it would have hit the jogger in the head. A thick nylon rope sailed over the wall separating Arizona from Mexico as if it had wings. A white lifeline with a knot at the end, it hung from the top and dangled to within three feet of the ground. I watched the stunned runner stop short and rein in his dog as a blue-jeaned man topped the wall, slid down the rope and gave new meaning to "hit the ground running." He headed north across the highway towards the cover of desert scrub as another man followed, and then another -- four in all.

Just as quickly, with a series of jerks, the rope disappeared back into Mexico. The witness continued his noonday jog within sight of the border crossing, where the Stars and Stripes and Mexico's bold red and green flag waved side by side in the breezes of spring.

This recently happened in Naco, a small town split in two by the ugliest wall you could ever imagine. Twenty years ago, when I first visited Naco, I strolled over the border with hardly an official glance to buy fresh frozen pineapple bars from a friendly vendor on the street. Although it spanned two countries, Naco was one village where neighbors and families easily mixed. Now, I cross the border with passport in hand to enter a Mexican town that thrives through the business of illegal migration. Hostels called hospedajes have sprouted like weeds. Cheap day packs decorated with the likes of Pokemon hang from street stalls next to black T-shirts, an a draw those who plan to scale the wall at nightfall.

Naco, Ariz., is also prospering. Old houses sprout roomy additions and fancy windows. Vacant lots boast new double wides and shiny SUVs with heavily tinted windows roll through this dusty town of 900 people. Friends who run the migrant center across the border tell me the going price is $400 a pop to transport a "UDA" -- an undocumented alien -- from Naco to Tucson.

I visit the ecologically rich borderlands every spring. I come to see the thousands of sand hill cranes that winter at nearby Whitewater Draw, as well as rarities like the resplendent green kingfisher in the bosque of the San Pedro River. A vital migratory corridor, the cottonwood-lined river spans the border, flowing surprisingly south to north. It's easy to feel the changes here from one year to the next. In years past, my daydreams were rudely interrupted by the screech of peacocks running free up the road. Now,the flamboyant birds are all but silent, replaced by coyote yips and howls. They explode into chorus day and night as if advertising for their two-legged counterparts who move brown humanity across the border to the E l Norte. The four-legged coyotes lope down the deserted railroad bed a few feet away in broad daylight. The most brazen ones seem to have taken over the town, probably drawn by the piles of migrant trash strewn across the land.

No one can walk the borderlands without seeing the detritus of flight. Whether in the low-lying deserts or atop the mountainous sky islands, I am likely to stumble across debris areas called "layups" that range up to 100 yards long. I've read of arroyos where you can walk half a mile on strewn jackets, diapers, tampons and jettisoned medicines.

The Bureau of Land Management estimates that eight pounds of trash are dropped here per day per person. Figure 870 arrests a day in the 262-mile-wide Tucson sector, and you've got approximately 7,000 pounds of trash every 24 hours. But only one in three persons is caught, so actually the number is closer to 21,000 pounds per day. It certainly feels like 21,000 people have crossed the landscape and left their litter behind.

There's no hard research on the effects of border trash on wildlife. At best it's an insult to the earth. At its most serious it affects the desert tortoises that live in desert washes as well as the four-legged animals and birds that are drawn to the potentially dangerous leftovers. In 2003, the BLM instituted the Southern Arizona Project to remedy some of the environmental damage. The BLM has given $5 million to private and government groups for projects that include trash collection. The groups pick up 230,000 pounds a year.

Activity around little Naco intensifies. Like the San Pedro River, the stream of garbage intensifies from south to north. As for the wall, there are always taller ladders, deeper tunnels and thick nylon ropes. Meanwhile, the coyotes -- both kinds -- run at will, ignoring the rest of us.

Christina Nealson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She calls Mancos, Colorado, home as she travels the West, pen and camera in hand

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].