- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2004

A California state agency has rejected the Homeland Security Department’s effort to fortify the U.S.-Mexico border to safeguard defense facilities from terrorists and ebb the flow of illegal aliens, saying it would harm endangered species.

Congress mandated the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to build secondary and triple fences along the 14-mile stretch from the Otay Mesa Border to the Pacific Ocean, dubbed “Operation Gatekeeper.”

However, the California Coastal Commission concluded Wednesday that the last phase of the project “does not properly balance border patrol and resource-protection needs.” The independent, quasi-judicial state agency voted unanimously against the project.

The report said the “environmentally sensitive habitat” is home to three endangered birds: the least Bell’s vireo, Southwestern willow flycatcher and coastal California gnatcatcher.

“The operation might succeed, but the patient may die,” commissioner John Woolley said.

The CBP can ignore the commission’s decision and move forward with the project, but the commission could block the project in federal court. The final decision could be made by President Bush, who has the power to trump a court ruling under federals laws that manage coastlines.

Mike Nicley, chief patrol agent for the San Diego sector, said the project has had a “dramatic impact” blocking what was historically “easy access” for illegal aliens. Last year, 100,000 border crossers were stopped, compared with half a million in previous years.

“Where we once got thousands a month is down to a trickle,” Mr. Nicley said.

Federal officials will first go back to the drawing board to address the commission’s concerns and further mitigate any impact on the environment while still carrying out the Homeland Security Department’s mission.

“The two missions are not mutually exclusive,” Mr. Nicley said. “We are able to secure the nation and not run roughshod over the environment. We have been very good stewards of the environment.”

Equally damaging to the environment are stolen trucks used by aliens to cross the border, he said.

“It’s really very damaging to the habitat in sheer numbers.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, supported the project that is also geared to stop drug smugglers and protect military facilities including the San Diego Naval Station.

“The porous nature of this border area poses an unnecessary security risk,” Mr. Hunter said in a letter to Navy Secretary Gordon R. England.

Fencing along nine miles of the border did not raise natural-resources concerns and has been completed. The remaining five miles, including filling a half-mile of “Smuggler’s Gulch” to construct a road, remain in limbo. The new road would be used for border patrols, and maintenance, lights, sensors and cameras would also be installed.

Three border-patrol agents have died in accidents along the dangerously steep terrain over the past two years.

Gary Winuk, deputy director of the California state office of Homeland Security, said the initial construction has significantly reduced the number of illegal aliens crossing the border.

“In our contact with local law enforcement, they have had a lot of success with the initial stage in terms of the numbers of people coming across, and we need to build on that to make sure it is secure,” Mr. Winuk said. “From our office’s perspective, we think homeland security is a top concern.”

However, the California Coastal Commission argued that border protection “must be balanced against habitat protection and recreation goals for the region.”

A biological assessment said the project would “harass” one pair of least Bell’s vireos and a one pair of Southwestern flycatchers by removing from their habitat nearly 3 acres of willow scrub and 4 acres of mule-fat scrub. Three gnatcatchers would also be “harassed” by the removal of sage scrub and southern maritime chaparral in nearly 50 acres.

Other endangered species would be “adversely effected” in the nearby Tijuana River National Estuary, including the light-footed clapper rail, a marsh-nesting bird, and the salt marsh bird’s beak, a native coastal plant that helps check erosion.

The habitat of the nonendangered Baja California birdbush, which exists only on a mesa east of Smuggler’s Gulch, and “an extremely rare maritime succulent-scrub vegetation community” on another mesa would also be threatened by the project, the report said.

Mitigation plans by the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection to protect the habitat and species were rejected by the commission.

“The proposal threatens to weaken the overall credibility and effectiveness of the entire multi-species habitat conservation program, as these lands were carefully and scientifically evaluated to provide regional ecological benefits to meet regional preservation goals and to mitigate the cumulative impacts of other development in the region,” the commission report said.

This article based in part on wire reports.

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