Environmental red tape has at times ensnared the U.S. Border Patrol's efforts to gain control of parts of the U.S.-Mexico border, according to a draft government report that found agents sometimes take a back seat to protecting endangered species in the Southwest's national parks and forests.
The Government Accountability Office, though, also found repeated instances where biologists have concluded the Border Patrol's pursuits across some of the most fragile lands in the country have hurt endangered animals and plants, including the ocelot in Texas and the Sonoran pronghorn in Arizona.
Altogether, the draft report - released early by a Republican congressman last week - found incidents of real conflict are limited. Only four of the 26 Border Patrol stations along the border reported problems in trying to pursue illegal immigrants on lands managed by the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the Fish and Wildlife Service.
But where problems do occur, the report paints a picture of the government fighting with itself, with the land-management agencies slow-walking permits and approvals while the Border Patrol struggles to train agents to be sensitive to environmental issues.
"This report reveals shocking details that illustrate how U.S. so-called "environmental" policies are contributing to the ongoing crime and violence along the southern U.S.-Mexico border," said Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah Republican, who posted the draft report on his congressional website Friday.
Mr. Bishop and 11 other House and Senate lawmakers requested the report last year. GAO is still waiting on the federal agencies' official comments before finalizing the report, and Mr. Bishop's early release of the document has angered some federal agencies.
The investigators found a mixed situation - in some places cooperation seems the rule, while in others both sides seem determined to butt heads.
In one stark instance, the investigators said the Border Patrol has tried to get an east-west road built in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a sprawling desert park that spans 32 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. But the road request has been denied by the park superintendent, leaving the patrol agent-in-charge to struggle without the additional resource.
"He told us that some of his area of operation could potentially reach operational-control status if there was an additional east-west road for patrolling certain areas within the monument," the investigators said. "Border Patrol requested an additional east-west road, but the land manager denied the request because the area is designated wilderness."
In another instance, the Border Patrol tried to move mobile surveillance systems, but Organ Pipe Cactus employees took more than four months to study and approve the move - and by then, illegal immigrants had shifted their traffic again, making the newly approved position obsolete.
"As a result, Border Patrol was unable to move the surveillance system to the area desired, and during the four-month delay, agents were limited in their ability to detect undocumented aliens in a seven-mile range that could have been covered by the system," the investigators said.
For much of the last decade, Organ Pipe Cactus has been a key entry point for illegal immigration. The federal land is so dangerous to tourists that half of the park is currently closed to visitors, and has been since 2007.
A spokeswoman at Organ Pipe Cactus said Friday that she hadn't seen the report and couldn't comment, and she said the superintendent wasn't unavailable. A spokesman for the Park Service in Washington didn't respond to a request for comment.
But Kendra Barkoff, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department, which oversees the Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management, stressed some of the examples of successful collaboration in the report.
"We look forward to continuing to work with those agencies as we address the challenges along the southwest border," she said. "We will also diligently work to implement the GAO's recommendations for how we can further strengthen our programs and collaborations."
Indeed, the report did find some instances where the two sides have come to agreements: The Border Patrol has agreed not to fly helicopters near the endangered Sonoran pronghorn herd's location on Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona,
Meanwhile, in some instances, requests from Border Patrol agents on the ground for more resources or roads have been denied by their own supervisors, apparently for budget reasons.
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