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Gaps on the border: U.S. agencies at odds

Published January 30, 2010 11:38 pm

Enforcement agents patrolling the international line clash with land managers trying to preserve the environment.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

After a 20-minute drive into a federally protected stretch in Arizona, retired Forest Service employee Mark South points to an aging, four-strand barbed-wire fence separating the United States from its southern neighbor.

"See that fence? That's Mexico," South says.

"Seriously?" asks an incredulous Rep. Rob Bishop. "That's it?"

Moments later, after South opens a 3-foot-wide gate, the Utah Republican walks unimpeded onto foreign soil.

Bishop immigrates back to America moments later with a bit of newfound insight about the challenges of protecting the border along the nation's public lands.

A tall metal fence may not be the solution here, Bishop concedes. But when drug smugglers, human traffickers or would-be terrorists can simply open a gate into the United States, he's convinced something more needs to be done.

Securing the border is likely to become a major issue when Congress takes up immigration reform later this year. And this stretch of the southern line -- an unpopulated, arid scrubland that includes a national forest, wildlife refuge and national monument -- will be part of that debate.

Bishop, who spent three days on the border earlier this month, aims to make sure of it.

The Utah congressman is the ranking Republican on the Natural Resources Committee's panel on public lands and parks, and he's planning to take colleagues this spring on a tour of the vast open spaces to educate them on the continuing concerns.

Legislation may be needed, he says, to ensure that wilderness rules aren't precluding border security. That could mean congressional intervention to make sure the Border Patrol can place surveillance towers where needed and to prohibit land managers from locking border agents out of certain areas.

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Home on the border » David and Edith Lowell's home sports a wagon-wheel chandelier, a bounty of cowboy hats, mountain lion furs, antique rifles, and this close to the border, a state-of-the-art security system.

The Atascosa Ranch lies eight miles from the international line and abuts the Coronado National Forest on three sides, making it a way station of sorts for people crossing into America illegally.

The couple, both 82 years old, run about 200 head of cattle on their own land and dozens of square miles leased from the federal government inside the forest. They talk in blunt terms about the reality of living on the pathway of border crossers.

"Our cowboys found a human head about a half-mile in that direction. Up the canyon," David Lowell says, matter-of-factly. There was no body, just a severed head stuffed into a plastic Safeway bag.

In the past month, three people were shot within five miles of their home, the most recent a border agent who took a bullet in the ankle. Not long ago, the same cowboys found three Chinese passports, two of them with pictures ripped out, likely the result of human trafficking.

David Lowell calls the immigration problem nearby an "ongoing war" and wants the Border Patrol to get the backing to treat it like one.

"The border on a map looks like a line, but it really isn't," David Lowell says. "It's a zone."

Indeed, temporary Border Patrol checkpoints can be found on major roads about 20 miles or so from the border.

Edith Lowell notes that Americans aren't paying attention to the bloody rivalry between drug cartels south of the border, some of which she says is clearly spilling over onto U.S. soil.

"When people say we don't want this drug war to spread into the United States -- it already has," Edith Lowell says.

The couple have lived on their remote ranch for 25 years, and they say the immigration problem has ballooned in the past decade.

Border Patrol numbers actually show that apprehensions -- the only hard measure of activity -- have decreased from 380,000 people detained in fiscal 2007 to 241,000 in fiscal 2009. Agency estimates say one of every five people detained has a criminal history, up from previous years.

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Agencies at odds » Mike Nicley, former Tucson sector chief for the U.S. Border Patrol, says a stronger fence and beefed-up patrols near urban areas has cut down on immigration at major crossing points. That leaves public lands as a prime access point.

Nicley lays the blame for any schisms between border agents and Interior or Agriculture officials squarely on land managers who he says are more interested in keeping patrols off protected areas than in cracking down on immigrants who are destroying the land anyway.

In the two years since he retired from the Border Patrol, Nicley says there has been a shift in deference to the land managers. Agents are more afraid to traipse into wilderness areas to chase border crossers, while smugglers are going onto the public lands because they know they're less likely to get caught.

"These people are trashing public lands, and [land managers] aren't doing anything but telling [the] Border Patrol, 'You can't go after them,' " he says.

Interior officials had balked at the Border Patrol setting up permanent surveillance towers -- part of the virtual fence project -- in wilderness areas on public lands, citing federal protection laws. Homeland Security says it has found alternative spots that work, but Nicley disputes that.

The former law enforcement official tells Bishop: "That's not what people on the ground are saying."

Overall, Nicley says a fence in those wilderness areas may not be practical anyway, but that the Border Patrol needs its towers where tactically important and agents need to be able to pursue border crossers wherever they go.

"Protecting our critical lands is important; securing our border is important," Nicley says, adding that the goals are not mutually exclusive.

Bishop isn't surprised at the security problems and agency conflicts he found on his border tour, but he's frustrated.

"This is outrageous and no one knows about it, and that's something we're trying to change," the congressman says.

Few places along the border show the impact of immigration and drug smuggling more than Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a desert preserve that is home to dozens of endangered species --- and for the past few years, raging combat among drug cartels.

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The nation's most dangerous park » Visitors to the monument who tune into the park's 1610 AM station hear a stark, unsettling message about the American treasure they're entering.

"Please be aware that illegal activity related to the international border can occur in this area," the announcement says, asking visitors to always be aware of their surroundings. "Some areas of the monument are closed to public use due to security concerns along the international border."

In fact, 55 percent of the monument is closed to the public because it's too dangerous. In area, that's more than twice the size of Salt Lake City.

When visitors call the park's main number, the first message warns them to call 911 if they're in a life-threatening emergency.

Superintendent Lee Baiza says he believes that a 2006 agreement on border security interactions between the Interior, Agriculture and Homeland Security departments is working. He points to a map of the monument showing scores of points during a two-month span in which the Border Patrol entered protected wilderness areas in pursuit of border crossers, as is allowed by the agreement.

He says that since that document was signed, much has changed, including a nearly fivefold increase in the number of border agents and a vehicle barrier on the actual border.

"I think it's time to come back and re-evaluate" that agreement, Baiza says.

His job is a juggling act of sorts. The park, which harbors species on the brink of extinction, includes a major highway into the United States and, on the Mexico side, several roads that pass right by the border. Vehicle barriers, usually a welded metal rail on poles or crossbucks, have dramatically cut down on drug runners zooming through the park in stolen vehicles weighed down with marijuana, heroine or cocaine.

But the more daring drug mules now build makeshift ramps or cut through the barriers.

Baiza says his goal is to protect lives, preserve the park's resources and have a safe working environment for his employees. And, for him, that starts on the border. He supports a "good secure fence," and to do what's possible to keep border crossers from ever getting to the wilderness areas.

"I want to fight my battle on the line," he says.

Still, Baiza says he's being vilified for trying to save the park, even though he says he isn't standing in the way of the Border Patrol.

"I'm been chastised for doing my job, and all I'm trying to do is be a good manager," he says.

Wayne Lackner, the public lands liaison for the Tucson sector, described the interaction between border agents and park or forest service employees as a "relationship," like any marriage or friendship.

"It has a lot of positive points," he says, noting the divergence in missions between the agencies. His is to protect the border; theirs is to protect the land.

"I don't know that it's contentious," he says. "It's the clashing of missions."

Lackner says the Border Patrol routinely brings in biologists, land managers and others to help educate agents. While they can't operate without any impact on public lands, they try to tread lightly.

He proposes more communication and for all the parties to cooperate on preserving the environment.

"On the ground, we're committed to working together. We've got to," Lackner says.

He also notes that while his higher-ups found suitable areas for the surveillance towers, and that they were mutually agreeable to land managers and Border Patrol, there were still "a couple places that would have been preferable."

Lackner says the reality of the situation is: "We cannot preserve the environment on the border unless we secure it."

That's key to Bishop's strategy as well.

"I would think that before you talk about an overall immigration policy, you've got to solve this problem," Bishop says after a few days of driving through the dusty, rolling hills of the borderlands. "Until you can control the border, it seems like anything else you try to do is a moot issue."

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