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Indybay FeatureRelated Categories: U.S. | Environment & Forest Defense
Border-crossings impact fragile desert environments
While one sympathizes with the plight of undocumented workers in the U.S.A., most progressives have their heads stuck in the sand by avoiding the problem of environmental destruction in the Sonoran Desert. Millions of border crossings are taking a heavy toll. Helping undocumented workers should also include finding ways to alleviate this continuing destruction.
The following (from various sources) are examples of the environmental impact:
"The thousands of undocumented immigrants who cross this border area from Mexico into the United States daily are taking a heavy toll on wildlife habitats and the species that live in southern Arizona, especially in our most critical wild lands, say natural resource managers. ... Destruction of habitat and disturbance of wildlife are only part of the problem. Illegal crossers leave behind large amounts of litter, such as empty water jugs, old clothes, cans and bottles, and paper. Some border areas simply look like city dumps. ... Compounding the problem of trash is the large amount of human biological waste that accumulates in staging areas or pickup points, especially near riparian zones."
Arizona Wilderness Advocate, Winter 2003-04.
"The third largest National Wildlife Refuge and largest refuge Wilderness in the lower 48 states, the Cabeza Prieta lies deep in the desert on the Arizona – Mexico border. Here temperatures soar above 100 degrees from May to September, yet life thrives. Rock basins in the mountains, known as tinajas, collect moisture, providing water for stately bighorn sheep, grey fox, ringtails and other wildlife. Spring wildflowers bloom among the creosote and mesquite, dwarfed by towering saguaro cacti. Cabeza Prieta itself means “dark head,” a reference to a lava-topped, white granite peak holding sway over the valley floor. There is little doubt that the Cabeza is one of our most magnificent Wildernesses, the extremity of its conditions commanding respect, the beauty of its landscape inciting awe. Sadly, it is also one of our most troubled Wildernesses, facing complex challenges unimaginable in other regions of the country.
The Refuge encompasses 860,010 acres, more than 90 percent of which was designated as Wilderness by the 1990 Arizona Desert Wilderness Act. Cabeza Prieta’s 56-mile shared border with Mexico has been called the loneliest international boundary in the country. Yet for such an isolated area, there is a surprising amount of traffic. Sensors along the border indicate that 4,000 - 6,000 illegal immigrants a month may cross the eastern portion of the refuge each spring. The neighboring Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument Wilderness estimates that 300,000 illegal individuals cross in a year’s time.
The thousands of undocumented immigrants crossing into the United States take a heavy toll on wildlife habitats and the species that live in southern Arizona, especially on our most critical wild lands. While definitive studies on the quantitative and qualitative effects of illegal border activities on wildlife and habitat haven’t been done, there is plenty of documentation regarding these impacts. Natural water tanks are often polluted, drained dry, or receive so much human activity that wildlife cannot or will not use them. In the Cabeza, drug and illegal immigrant smuggling activities caused the abandonment of one of four known maternity roosts (caves) of the endangered lesser long-nosed bat in the United States. Endangered pygmy ferruginous owls have also abandoned nest sites due to increased illegal activity.
High amounts of illegal cross-country vehicle travel lead to extensive surface destruction of fragile desert soils, changing drainage patterns and creating areas of extensive erosion. Illegal activities impact the critically endangered Sonoran pronghorn on the Cabeza and Organ Pipe, hampering recovery efforts for the species. The degree of impact is difficult to determine, but it is believed to be potentially significant in high stress periods of the summer and extended droughts. Each spring and early summer significant areas of the Cabeza, Organ Pipe and adjacent BLM lands are closed to public use to help control disturbance to pronghorn during the fawning season. However, the closure does nothing to reduce the flow of illegal traffic and its impacts, which are of much greater significance than the limited level of legal public use.
In response to the escalating environmental damage and safety risks to staff and visitors, Organ Pipe has commenced building a vehicle-proof (foot traffic will not be hindered) barrier along its 36-mile international border at a projected cost of $17 million. It is almost certain that the barrier will increase pressure on the Cabeza, despite its greater size and the increased logistical difficulties for drug smugglers and illegal immigrants seeking to cross the border. Law enforcement and search and rescue actions will likely increase as well, escalating the environmental damage and effects on wilderness character. In order to counter the increasing threats to the Cabeza’s integrity the Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed a vehicle barrier of its own at a projected cost of approximately $24 million. It is hoped that funds for the project will come from other sources, such as the Department of Homeland Security, instead of from the already inadequate budget of the National Wildlife Refuge System.
The destruction of habitat and disturbance of wildlife are only part of the problem. Illegal crossers leave behind large amounts of litter, such as empty water jugs, old clothes, cans, bottles, and paper. Some border areas look like city dumps. Estimates made on the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation that borders Mexico for 73 miles indicate that approximately 8 pounds of trash is left by each immigrant and drug runner who crosses border lands, including the Cabeza. The scattered and accumulated trash in Arizona border Wilderness and other public lands amounts to a staggering 2 million pounds (a conservative estimate) each year.
Compounding the problem, large amounts of human biological waste accumulate in staging areas and pickup points, especially near riparian zones. The resulting pollution of streams and riverbeds presents risks to legitimate users and creates a major concern for land managers who are suddenly faced with biohazard sites that must be treated accordingly for cleanup. The cleaning of trash heaps and waste sites provides only short-term relief, as they soon return to pre-cleanup levels due to the large number of immigrants crossing the border.
At any given time one can find 20 - 25 broken down or abandoned vehicles left by smugglers in the Wilderness portion of the Cabeza. Staff efforts to remove the vehicles cannot keep up with the accumulation, and the method of their removal further damages refuge resources.
Approximately 180 miles of illegal roads have been created on the Cabeza in the last 4 years. The impacts of these roads are compounded by the needs of law enforcement personnel who must engage in the interdiction of drug and people smugglers and conduct search and rescue operations by both ground and air. Efforts are made to keep off-road travel to a minimum and maintain wilderness character, but too often there is no other alternative than cutting across Wilderness lands, especially when lives are at stake. Sadly, this is often the case in these remote desert areas where summer temperatures reach 115 degrees and higher.
Already, there have been a large number of rescue operations and unfortunate deaths on the Cabeza. The Department of Interior is currently being sued for $42 million by lawyers for families of 11 out of 14 illegal immigrants who died as a group while attempting to cross the Wilderness in 2001. The lawyers contend that the refuge should have had water stations (tanks) situated in remote areas of the refuge as life saving measures.
The unique threats suffered by border Wildernesses create tension between resource managers and border law enforcement agencies. There is a perception among certain politicians that environmental laws and regulations impede the full function of law enforcement agencies such as Border Patrol and U.S. Customs. Border Patrol officials have expressed the need for greater operational flexibility by seeking potential exemptions from environmental laws within a two-mile corridor along the border. They also wish to reduce or eliminate restrictions on off-road travel (travel for emergency situations is currently allowed), and be able to establish structures such as buildings, towers and beacons with little restriction in Wilderness and other natural areas for law enforcement purposes.
It is a Catch 22 situation. While Border Patrol operations can substantially impact Wilderness resources their presence is essential to its protection. The budgets and staffs of the border natural resource management agencies are too inadequate to address the border problems. Furthermore, their operational missions are very different from that of the Border Patrol. While allowing increasingly damaging activities to occur may ultimately save some Wilderness resources, it is equally possible that they may not. Management at the Cabeza has tried to find progressive solutions, weighing the priorities of law enforcement and saving human life with protecting natural resources and wilderness character. A lot of what has been done on the border would not be acceptable in other Wilderness areas, but the Arizona border is embattled like no other area in the nation. It is a highly unique and problematic situation requiring difficult and unique solutions.
Edward Abbey waxed eloquent about the solitude and vastness of the Cabeza, but today his footprints would be among those of thousands of illegal immigrants, their trash and hundreds of miles of illegal tire tracks."
Roger Di Rosa is the manager of the Cabeza Prieta Refuge. He has seen the good, the bad and the ugly of the Cabeza having worked there from 1979-1985 when it was a remote and rarely visited refuge and de-facto wilderness.
Wilderness Watch, July 2004.
Illegal Entrants' Residue; Trash Woes Piling Up
by Tony Davis, The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson), August 24, 2005.
Pima County in Arizona is looking for more money to deal with trash left by illegal immigrants entering the United States.
"It has been estimated that the average desert-walking immigrant leaves behind 8 pounds of trash during a journey that lasts one to three days if no major glitches occur," Davis writes. "Assuming half a million people cross the border illegally into Arizona annually, that translates to 2,000 tons of trash that migrants dump each year.
What makes migrant trash especially problematic is that it is in remote scattered areas where it is dangerous to cattle and wildlife, and difficult and expensive for garbage crews to reach and pick up.
Smugglers make the illegals dump their stuff so more people can be packed into vehicles for the trip north; other illegals dump their stuff in favor of nicer clothes to better blend in with the communities where they will be staying.
Dumping of Trash, Waste, Endemic in State with Flood of Illegal Immigration
by Arthur H. Rotstein, Associated Press Newswires, Dateline Coronado National Memorial, Arizona, July 12, 2004.
Take a walk through Arizona's remote deserts, parks and ranches, and what might you see? Empty food cans, water bottles, soiled diapers, human feces, castoff clothing, abandoned cars, trampled vegetation and bushes burned for campfires -- all the residue of a ceaseless flow of thousands of illegal immigrants trying to get into the United States.
"Environmental degradation has become among the migration trend's most visible consequences," Rotstein writes. "A few years ago, there were 45 abandoned cars on the Buenos Aires refuge near Sasabe, and enough trash that a volunteer couple filled 723 large bags with 18,000 pounds of garbage over two months in 2002." (Editor's note: The 115,900-acre Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1985 to reintroduce and protect native plant and animal species.)
"The bureau of Land Management received $1.3 million from Congress during the past two years to clean up trash and restore damaged lands. It has shared the money with other federal agencies, organizations and communities. Most often, ranchers, park rangers and other employees end up picking up trash in the course of their daily work," Rotstein reports.
Testimony delivered June 17, 2004 before The U.S. Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee by Roger Di Rosa, refuge manager, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is finding itself increasingly preoccupied with international border security, according to Roger Di Rosa, manager of the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Arizona.
In testimony delivered June 17 before the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, Di Rosa said "the Service has had to adapt its activities in response to the increased focus on homeland security issues in order to more effectively fulfill its mission of conserving wild plants, animals, and habitats."
Tougher border security in traditional ports of entry make remote park lands more attractive to drug and people smugglers, he said. "More than 100,000 pounds of marijuana was seized on refuge lands last year along the southwest border," he told the Senate committee. "More than 23,000 illegal immigrants were apprehended in 2003 on refuges in Arizona alone."
These illegal activities, Di Rosa said, is damaging refuge environments as well as threatening the safety of volunteers, the public and Service employees.
While increase U.S. Border Patrol presence is helps, more officers and technological means is needed, he said. Di Rosa noted that there are eight National Wildlife Refuges in the United States totaling 1.1 million acres that share 153 miles of border with Mexico.
Bitter Division for Sierra Club on Immigration
by Felicity Barringer, The New York Times, March 16, 2004.
Immigration is creating a bitter leadership struggle in the Sierra Club, a 112-year-old organization of 750,000 members that works to bring conservation and pollution issues to public attention.
Barringer writes that the Sierra Club is struggling over "whether to advocate tough immigration restrictions as a way to control environmental damage that has been associated with rapid population growth."
U.S. Census Bureau figures show that nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population growth over the last 10 years has been a result of direct immigration; many of the immigrants have settled in California, the Sierra Club's home base.
Violent Drama Plays Out Amid Natural Splendor
by Bob Marshall, Newhouse News Service, Dateline Why, Arizona, March 15, 2004.
A feature story that focuses on the impact illegal immigrants are having on Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a 330,000-acre park in the Sonoran Desert on the Arizona-Mexico border.
Each year, an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 illegal immigrants try to make the 15 to 30 mile hike through the wilderness to reach cities in the United States. Last year, 173 were found dead, most from exposure.
Most of the illegal border crossers spend at least two nights in the park. Marshall writes: "That works out to a city the size of Baton Rouge, La., living in the park without a sewage system, without garbage collection, without a grid of dedicated roads or sidewalks. They move where they want in four-wheel-drive cars, ATVs, motorcycles, bicycles and their own feet."
Fred Patton, chief ranger at Organ Pipe, is quoted as saying: "We've now got 300 miles of illegal roads these people have cut through the desert, and thousands of miles of illegal trails they've created. We collect over 30 vehicles a year, and we measure the trash they leave behind, everything from cans and bottles to clothes, by the ton. And they've fouled the few water sources to the point they are too filthy now even for the animals to drink."
Many of the illegals come to the United States simply to seek a better life; others are dangerous criminals. In August 2002, Ranger Kris Eggle was shot and killed by smugglers.
In the hope of controlling the problem, the United States is building a 30-mile fence along the park border with Mexico that will at least stop vehicles from crossing into the parklands.
Cross-Border Traffic Ravages Desert Park; Drug Runners, Migrants Blamed by Hugh Dellios, Chicago Tribune, Dateline Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona, August 19, 2003.
The 300,000-acre Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona has become the most dangerous and among the most trash-strewn of U.S. national parks, thanks to drug runners and illegal immigrants, this article says.
Tougher border controls in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks make national parks like Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument -- along with Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, The Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge and the Coronado National Memorial -- more attractive to illegal border crossers. The result: beautiful and environmentally sensitive wildlife preserves are being destroyed by vehicles and human refuse.
In the desolate areas of the parks, many illegals die from the severe desert heat, and armed bandits are a constant threat. Last year, Organ Pipe park ranger Kris Eggle was shot and killed by a suspected drug trafficker fleeing Mexican police investigating a quadruple murder in Mexico.
Immigration Taking Toll on Parks, Refuges Near U.S.-Mexico Border
by April Reese, Land Letter, Environment and Energy Publishing, LLC, Public Lands, Vol. 10, No. 9, February 13, 2003.
Waves of illegal immigrants are taking a heavy toll on U.S. public lands along the Mexican border, federal officials say.
Some 900,000 people are caught each year trying to sneak into the United States. Their efforts to reach the United States drive them into protected desert lands, where they crowd out wildlife at watering holes and destroy and trash habitat.
Mike Coffeen, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Tucson, Arizona, is quoted as saying, while surveying the area by airplane: "the level of impact is just shocking."
The National Park Service is looking at a proposal that would put up vehicle barriers to help stem illegal immigrant traffic into Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
See: executive summary for Report to the House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations on Impacts Caused by Undocumented Aliens Crossing Federal Lands in Southeast Arizona.
Illegal Immigrants Tied to Costly Wildfires
Associated Press, Dateline Tucson, Arizona, September 9, 2002.
Illegal immigrants trying to get to the United States via the Mexican border with southern Arizona are suspected of having caused eight major wildfires this year, this report says. The fires destroyed 68,413 acres (about 108 square miles) and cost taxpayers $5.1 million to fight.
Fire officials haven't identified individuals suspected of causing the fires, but the physical evidence left where the fires began strongly points to illegal border crossers. Escaped campfires caused the conflagrations when border crossers attempted to warm themselves on cold spring and fall nights along known people-smuggling routes in remote areas rarely used by legal visitors.
Kolbe's office 'trashed': Protesters leave pungent reminder of immigration issue for congressman
SIERRA VISTA -- Protesters who say Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe is doing nothing to stop illegal immigrants from dumping trash in Cochise County left a message at the congressman's office front door in Sierra Vista -- 22 bags of trash.
This morning, Bernadette Polley, Kolbe's Sierra Vista office manager, saw the trash for the first time, although she knew about the incident Sunday night.
It was a political message because of Kolbe's desire to find new ways to address the illegal immigrant problems, Polley said.
The trash was removed from the front door by Sierra Vista workers before 8 a.m. today so Polley and Shay Saucedo, who also works for Kolbe, could enter the office. There is only one door to the office, at which the trash bags were piled more than three feet high.
The bags were left late Saturday night, and by this morning, the odors coming from the containers were ripe and pungent. The bags included plastic water bottles, clothing, shoes, feminine hygiene products and used food cans.
The protesters wrote messages on an unfilled Cochise County UDA Cleanup trash bag that had been taped to the outside of an office window.
"We are still being invaded! Here is some proof," one message stated with a frowning face drawn on the bag.
Other comments on the bag, that are given by the county to people interested in cleaning up illegal immigrant sites, said: "From a grandma to you," "From a Tucsonan and advid (sic) hunter" and "From a father to you."
Another message on a piece of cardboard was more direct with a message to Kolbe. It stated, "Mr. Kolbe It is your duty to uphold the constitution. Close our borders. Protect U.S. citizens and our environment." There was an arrow drawn to the word constitution.
Kolbe disagrees that he is doing nothing to address trashing of the environment by illegal immigrants. He also said the bill introduced in the House of Representatives by him and Arizona Republican U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain in the Senate will help reduce the number of illegal immigrants crossing the border into the United States from Mexico.
"I am just as concerned about the serious amount of trash left behind by illegal immigrants crossing the Arizona-Mexico border, and I believe that the temporary worker bill that I have introduced is a new way of solving the problems that come with illegal immigration," Kolbe said in a statement released by his Washington, D.C., office this morning.
Saying he has obtained federal funds to help cleanup the environment in Arizona, Kolbe said he "will see to it that there will be more money."
He said he has obtained nearly $2 million specifically earmarked for environmental cleanup in Southern Arizona.
Kolbe has had a number of town hall meetings in Cochise County pushing the proposed guest worker bill and support from people who live in the county has been small. Even his brother Walter Kolbe is against the proposed bill.
Sunday night a Sierra Vista police officer, who asked not to be identified, said he knows leaving the bags of trash was an anti-Kolbe message. Initially, the officer saw the scene as a site of illegal dumping.
He thought it was strange that the protesters picked up trash illegally dumped by immigrants and then the protesters illegally dumped the trash at Kolbe's office.
Kolbe's office 'trashed': Protesters leave pungent reminder of immigration issue for congressman - Bill Hess, Sierra Vista Herald, September 29, 2003.