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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

The endangered pygmy owl (Courtesy of National Park Service)

The Department of Homeland Security will be free of any environmental constraints in border control under a little-noticed provision just passed by Congress. Molly Peterson reports from the Arizona border what the change could mean.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood and coming up: writer Bill McKibben takes the long way home. But first, in a move that's been little noticed, Congress is giving the Department of Homeland Security the power to dispense with environmental laws when it builds barriers and roads along the nation’s borders. Lawmakers who support this provision in the so-called “Real ID Act” say it’s needed to finish a three-mile length of border fence near San Diego. But the law applies to all 7,500 miles of border with Canada and Mexico. Producer Molly Peterson traveled to Arizona to see what change the law may bring and found public lands managers already hard pressed to maintain a balancing act.


DJ: And you’re listening to the Waila Generations Mix, right here on KHON, 91-point-9, Tohono O’odham Nation.

PETERSON: The music of the Tohono O’odham Indian nation is Waila, a blend of polka and Mexican Nortena. It flows freely across the U.S. Mexico border that divides this native land.


PETERSON: Border control efforts successful elsewhere have funneled migrants here -- half a million people a year.


PETERSON: Sergeant Ann Miguel started with the Tohono O’odham Police Force 11 years ago. Now on patrol, she sees more travelers, more garbage. Some of it makes her nervous.

MIGUEL: The dirty diapers that they leave here, the clothing that they come in--lotions, medications, or whatever, syringes, all types of stuff in these backpacks that aren’t really healthy to us. But we have to search them before we put them in the vehicles and we have to come into contact with them

PETERSON: She stabs her finger at the truck’s window as we drive by an open water tank, a village’s drinking supply surrounded by trash. And Miguel says more often now residents on both sides of the border report serious attacks in their homes. Citing this traffic, crime and the risk of terrorism, lawmakers like Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter argue for more border walls, including the one he’s helped bring to San Diego.

HUNTER: We stopped those 300 drug trucks a month. Stopped them dead. We eliminated the ten murders a year, mostly of undocumented workers because we built that fence. If the extremists had had their way, they would have gone to a sympathetic federal court, tied us up in lawsuits and we wouldn't have had the fence.

PETERSON: So Congress is giving the Director of Homeland Security the authority to waive all environmental and other laws in the vicinity of the border. Surprisingly, perhaps, along the southern border, chain link fences and concertina wire are the exception, not the rule. For hundreds of miles between entry points no physical barriers exist. Arizona borderlands include protected lands, a dozen of them, where environmental laws shield plants and animals. Border patrol agents say they work hard to minimize damage. But public lands liaison David BeMiller says national security is his agency’s priority.

BEMILLER: It is our call in how we operate and deploy forces. We do have statutory authority to patrol within 25 miles of the border if we deem necessary.


TIBBITS: Gila woodpeckers, that’s a gilded flicker…


PETERSON: Bird songs greet biologist Tim Tibbits as the sun rises in Organ Pipe National Monument.


PETERSON: But he also has safety on his mind. We may be watched from brush areas by scouts for smugglers. A ranger was killed here two years ago.


TIBBITS: That’s the pygmy owl calling back.

The endangered pygmy owl. (Courtesy of National Park Service)

PETERSON: Tibbits calls for a cactus ferruginous pygmy owl. It’s the size of his fist and hard to hear. This canyon, its saguaro cactus, and mesquite, is prime territory for the owl, endangered under federal law. But foot trails, pounded down by hundreds of people and off road driving, worry the owls and Tibbits.

TIBBITS: I have had a couple of these nest territories that were active and they were feeding young, or they were incubating eggs, and then we saw some of this illegal activity occur in the territory, literally within 50-100 feet of the nest site. And then the territories have been abandoned.

PETERSON: Other animals, some of them rare, migrate across the border. Walls would prevent that, so local agencies have worked together for barriers that block people but not animals. This is one of them. Metal posts, set in concrete, sit on an 18-mile stretch at the park’s border. They’re crossed with railroad ties three feet up. Animals get through. Cars can’t. Organ Pipe’s Chief of Resources Mary Kralovec says public involvement–currently required for the National Environmental Policy Act–isn’t a burden. It got the barrier built.

KRALOVEC: The biggest most important part of the NEPA process is the public involvement. So if you get rid of that process you get rid of the public involvement process. The public has the opportunity to comment on the federal action.

PETERSON: But even a lengthy process couldn’t counter the push north. Border jumpers stymied by the vehicle barrier now head next door, into Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. A fleet of abandoned cars rust there, near the Palo Verde trees. Smugglers have cut roads across river washes and through creosote. Last month, 13 migrants, lost, without water, set signal fires hoping for rescue. They were rescued, but the fire tore through 1,000 acres of land. The park’s superintendent, Roger DiRosa, seems astonished as he walks to a lookout over these lands under assault.


PETERSON: He says border patrol has lately requested more access.

DIROSA: Unlimited access, cross-country access, four wheel drive, wherever they need to grow. Any kind of infrastructure necessary anywhere–and our contention was, ‘whoa, we support you but this is unnecessary.’

PETERSON: DiRosa has to walk a fine line. He wants to stay part of what border patrol is doing, so he’s worked out compromises with them. These local compromises are hard work. With the new law, they’ll be unnecessary or they could be overruled by Washington. Di Rosa may find himself negotiating the environment with a more powerful partner.

DIROSA: The problem is, it’s a bit like being governed by a dictator--is he going to be benevolent or is he going to be malicious? As long as he’s benevolent, it’s great.

PETERSON: Especially because the ecosystem is an unforgiving one. Three years ago, Arizona’s population of Sonoran pronghorn, a fast, deer-like animal, crashed. Just 18 survived a harsh drought year. Cabeza Prieta biologist Mike Coffeen manages pronghorn recovery. He says with drought years ahead there’s little room for error.

COFFEEN: What we worry about is when we get into the next severe drought cycle there’s so much activity now that it could have a serious impact on the pronghorn when they’re already stressed.

PETERSON: He points out a breeding enclosure, surrounded by electric fence. Concerned that helicopters would drive pronghorn to panic inside, biologists asked border patrol to keep clear. They have. This spring, ten fawns were born. David BeMiller says there’s no danger that kind of collaboration will disappear.

BEMILLER: At no time are we going to patrol the border without consulting other folks. It’s not worth protecting if it’s destroyed in the meantime.

PETERSON: Consultation could continue. But if it doesn’t, aggrieved parties will have little recourse. The new law will limit the basis for court challenges. For Living on Earth, I’m Molly Peterson.



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