A federal judge yesterday temporarily delayed construction of a 1.5-mile section of a border fence in a wildlife conservation area on the Arizona-Mexico line.
The Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club had requested a 10-day delay in a motion accusing the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies of failing to conduct a thorough study of the fence’s effect on the environment.
U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle said she granted the delay in part because the federal government did not explain why it hurried through an environmental assessment and began building the fence in the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area.
Judge Huvelle repeatedly asked the government’s attorney, Gregory Page, to explain why the agencies took only three weeks to perform the environmental assessment. She said that amount of time was unprecedented and that the government was trying to “ram” through the environmental study and start construction “before anyone would wake up.”
Judge Huvelle, an appointee of President Clinton, also questioned why equal urgency was not applied to building border fences in Texas and California.
President Bush signed legislation last year ordering the Homeland Security Department to build 700 miles of fence along the U.S.-Mexican border.
Opponents of the fence have said it will interfere with wildlife, disrupt commerce and disturb the bilateral way of life along the border. Supporters say it will curb illegal immigration and is needed for national security.
The San Pedro conservation area includes the biologically diverse San Pedro River, one of the last free-flowing rivers in the Southwest. The river, whose banks are dotted with cottonwood and willow trees, is a seasonal flyway for millions of migratory birds and hosts a large variety of plant and animal life.
Mr. Page argued that building the fence at the conservation area would address a national security problem and the environmental problems caused by thousands of illegal aliens cutting through the conservation area, on foot and by car, leaving behind trash and damaging wildlife.
“When you abate a border-security problem, that itself causes environmental problems, you are acting as a steward of the land,” he said.
The judge agreed with the green groups that the government failed to look at the cumulative effect of fencing on the border. The failure of the government to even acknowledge the potential effect of fencing on other parts of the border “renders this environmental assessment inadequate,” she said.
Judge Huvelle noted that her decision could be made moot by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who can waive all environmental laws to build the fence. “The law allows you to trump it. You have all the power,” she said.
The Homeland Security Department will review the decision and its options, spokesman Russell Knocke said.
“Arizonans and, quite frankly, Americans everywhere have been clear that they want more border security. Today’s ruling will not diminish our resolve to deliver it,” he said.
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