BUENOS AIRES N.W.R., Arizona | Michael M. Hawkes, manager of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, reaches across his desk and pulls out a homemade blue-and-red bumper sticker that reads, “Littering is always a crime.”
It turns out that here on the U.S.-Mexico border, even that is a controversial statement — because it’s aimed at the humanitarian groups that drop gallon jugs of water on public lands to help illegal immigrants crossing the rugged borderlands.
Mr. Hawkes says dealing with those groups now takes up most of his time, and it only builds on top of the pile of other pressures — an army of illegal immigrants and drug smugglers, some of them armed, facing off against the U.S. Border Patrol — that have transformed his wildlife sanctuary into ground zero for the nation’s immigration wars.
Situated in the middle of southern Arizona, Buenos Aires is among the hardest-hit. But the same story is repeated across the U.S.-Mexico border on refuges, Indian reservations, national forests and the rest of the federal lands that make up 40 percent of the boundary between the two countries.
The clear losers in the clash are the land, and the plants and animals that live on the edge in this beautiful but precarious environment — innocent bystanders caught up in an escalating, seemingly endless war between the immigrants, smugglers and the drug cartels and the authorities charged with catching them.
An estimated 300,000 illegal immigrants traversed Buenos Aires’ 118,000 acres in 2007, leaving tons of trash, rusting abandoned cars, biologically hazardous waste and vehicle tracks that reduced parts of the landscape to a dusty wasteland.
That hurts just about every aspect of the refuge’s mission, which was established in 1985 to try to preserve the endangered masked bobwhite quail, one of seven endangered species on the refuge.
In the last two years, though, border security has been built up, with more manpower and a fence across the entire refuge boundary with Mexico. The result, according to Mr. Hawkes: The number of illegal crossers dropped to 20,600 in fiscal year 2009, or just 7 percent of what it was in 2007. Abandoned cars dropped from 100 in 2007 to zero in the most recent 12-month period. The land near the fence is already recovering.
“I’ve heard a lot of conservationists down on the fence. From my standpoint, it’s been a blessing for this refuge, it really has,” Mr. Hawkes said. “I’m the black sheep of the bunch because I think [Border Patrol is] doing a great job.”
But environmentalists counter that while individual species might be helped — the lesser long-nosed bat, for example, which had at one point been ousted from its roosting cave on Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in western Arizona — that’s more than offset by the overall disruption to species migration.
Dan Millis with the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Campaign points to a stack of photos documenting desert toads, roadrunners and mule deer staring forlornly at the fence, apparently blocked in their efforts to be on the other side.
“Hands down, the security effort to try to stop the flow of undocumented immigration is, and always has been, from our perspective, far more damaging to the environment than the flow of migrants themselves,” he said.
“The fact is, this trash and these footpaths are really a short-term problem that has a quick fix in terms of pick up the trash, rehabilitate the paths,” he said. “This border wall does not have a quick fix, and in fact is having a very negative environmental impact that is causing extreme damage now.”
Academic work on the problem is just beginning.
A study earlier this year by Aaron D. Flesch, a graduate student at the University of Montana, suggested that the cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl, which was at one point listed as an endangered species, generally flies far lower than the height of the border fence — suggesting that the species’ population could be split in two. The same study also found that Desert Bighorn Sheep could face localized extinctions because populations are cut off from one another by fencing.
There are lives at stake here. Each year, dozens of immigrants unable to handle miles-long walks through heat that averages 100-degree highs in the summer are found dead on public lands. Thousands more give up and light signal fires or use emergency-call stations to summon help.
To combat that, humanitarian groups regularly cart water out to the remote regions of the border. And that’s what prompted Mr. Hawkes to print up his “Littering is always a crime” bumper sticker. It was meant to send a message to one group in particular, No More Deaths, a volunteer group that had dropped the water jugs along popular immigrant trails through the refuge, and who named its campaign “Humanitarian Aid Is Never a Crime.”
“They’ve become just as much of a problem as the illegals,” Mr. Hawkes said. It’s so bad that he’s asked — and the local U.S. attorney has agreed — to take the littering cases to court. Two men have been convicted, and more than a dozen are awaiting trial.
The Rev. Gene Lefebvre, who works with No More Deaths, said the group has asked that the littering cases be dropped. And after operating outside the law, they’re now in negotiations with Mr. Hawkes to try to get official sanction for their activities.
Mr. Lefebvre says his group had a brief meeting with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and since then, negotiations with Mr. Hawkes on a compromise have made progress. No More Deaths has even offered to haul out trash every time they go in with their water jugs, and to make sure they carry out more than they carry in.
“Border Patrol is not our enemy. Neither is Mike. We want to come out of this with a solution that lets more migrants live, and we’ll be happy with that, and make every effort on the environmental side to make Mike’s jobs better,” he said.
For years, the rugged, remote nature of southern Arizona was its main protection against incursions by illegal immigrants. It was far easier for immigrants to go through more populated areas in California and Texas, so Arizona was spared.
But in the 1990s, the Border Patrol closed down those urban corridors, pushing the illegal flows straight into Arizona and the most fragile parts of the Sonoran Desert. The drug smugglers soon followed suit. The cartels’ ability to adapt to the changing circumstances north of the border is remarkable.
One innovation was to post spotters inside the U.S., oftentimes on federal lands, to keep track of Border Patrol and other law enforcement movements. The one-man rock nest on a ridgeline overlooking Interstate 8 at Milemarker 141 is typical. The spot is well-camouflaged and if it weren’t for the pile of empty Bud Light cans and water bottles with Spanish labels, almost impossible to spot unless you knew exactly where to look.
The smuggling cartels have thousands of these lookouts stations across southern Arizona, manned by low-level employees or people who owe a debt to the cartel.
“They’re everywhere. On the smuggling corridors, most of the high points that give a good perspective of the smuggling routes or trails, there are lookouts in those areas,” said Patrick Brasington, the chief law enforcement officer for the Bureau of Land Management’s Phoenix office, which oversees the land near Milemarker 141.
That brazen approach extends to the fragile landscape as well. Mr. Brasington said smugglers have actually cut a miles-long, two-track road through wilderness on BLM land, moving rocks and flush-cutting to the ground trees, brush and cactus.
Mr. Brasington described one vehicle where smugglers had apparently tried but failed to change flat tires and instead left it propped up on boulders.
“They just devastated this area. It looked like a football field, where people had been playing there in the mud for months,” he said.
In Ironwood Forest National Monument, haulers used to collect 40,000 to 50,000 pounds of trash a year. But in the fiscal year that just ended that dropped to 30,000 pounds — parts of the monument are just too dangerous for contractors to pick up the trash.
The public lands agencies are well aware of that danger to their employees.
Mr. Hawkes said two state game wardens were shot at on his wildlife refuge last year, and law enforcement reports over the years detail other dangerous run-ins, including the death of Park Service Ranger Kris Eggle, gunned down on Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in 2002 by a drug cartel hit man fleeing Mexico.
It has gotten so bad that agencies require employees here to take special training, and have issued special rules on how to operate. The U.S. Forest Service warns managers not to send employees out on nighttime assignments, while the Fish and Wildlife Service said a law enforcement escort is required for employees working at night.
Despite those rules, hunters, campers, hikers and tourists enjoying the public lands don’t see those same warnings. Instead, the most common alert they see is a road sign such as the one near Ironwood Forest National Monument that reads: “Travel caution: smuggling and illegal immigration may be encountered in this area.”
A 2002 report by a drug task force in Arizona described what civilians have faced on public lands: carjacking and robbery, having rocks thrown at them and having their homes along the border invaded by immigrants looking for food, money or anything else they can carry.
Except for the occasional sign or Web site notice, the Interior Department does not publicize how dangerous the borders can be.
But a department employee did collect partial data up until he retired in late 2008. According to his figures, more than 99 percent of all marijuana seized on or near department lands over the last three years was seized along the border. The borderlands also accounted for more than 90 percent of the cocaine and more than 90 percent of vehicles seized and stolen vehicles recovered on Interior Department lands.
The border region accounted for about a quarter of the threats or violent incidents recorded in all the country’s national parks, wildlife refuges, BLM land and Indian reservations, even though the borderlands account for a minuscule fraction of total department lands.
The agencies say there’s a reason they issue the extra warnings to their own staffs: They fear that being government employees makes them particular targets. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s new instructions issued earlier this month advise employees not to wear uniforms or any other official insignia while doing fieldwork.
Mr. Hawkes had his own, odd run-in.
Two weeks after he moved into a trailer home on the refuge, an immigrant broke in while Mr. Hawkes was out — and helped himself to a leftover dinner.
The man ate pork and beans, he stole Mr. Hawkes’ new sneakers, a cell phone and the phone’s charger — and then he washed the dishes he’d used, and wrote a note asking Mr. Hawkes to view his actions with compassion.
“It’s just a matter of time until someone gets murdered, raped, shot,” Mr. Hawkes said.
Even the supporters of the border fence acknowledge it’s not a cure-all.
Mr. Hawkes said the flow of immigrants on his refuge now looks like an hourglass, with the wall preventing incursions at the southern end, but with the immigrants and smugglers bleeding back onto his land farther north.
And he says the fence — which extends a mile on either side of his refuge, but then turns into vehicle barriers — could end up hurting some of the refuge’s species if it were built farther out.
He says he’s hoping the better technology promised by SBInet, the much-anticipated but long-delayed “virtual fence” the government has been promising, will be the answer to the competing challenges of security and resource management.
The only problem: SBInet is proceeding very slowly, thanks in part to the need to comply with environmental laws.
Those laws have always been a thorn in the side of the Border Patrol, illustrating again the clash of interests between law enforcement and environmental stewardship.
One Border Patrol agent recalled a few years back when the agency wanted to begin horse patrols on Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The Park Service, which runs the monument, came back with a strange demand: that the horses be fed with seedless alfalfa, so that when they defecated they wouldn’t be bringing in seeds of an invasive species.
More recently, Congress had to give the Homeland Security secretary authority to waive three dozen environmental laws to help expedite construction of the fence.
But the fights go on.
In a report last month, the Government Accountability Office said the Homeland Security and the Interior departments have been feuding over how much information the Border Patrol should provide to obtain environmental permits to build towers on public lands.
The issue has since erupted onto the House and Senate floors.
Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, attached an amendment to a Senate spending bill this year that would make sure wilderness designations aren’t used to keep the Border Patrol agents from doing their job.
“The tragedy is that the very intent of the Department of Interior to protect the environment is actually being made worse by their policy of not allowing law enforcement efforts, i.e., the Border Patrol, into those areas,” Mr. Coburn argued.
His amendment was accepted unanimously by the Senate, but still must survive a final House-Senate compromise bill.
On the House side, Republicans managed to attach an amendment to a national heritage area designation in Arizona that says the Department of Homeland Security must be consulted in such matters.
“I don’t think Americans really know that when a Border Patrol agent crosses into a national park, he has to get out of his car, park it and walk,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, the Utah Republican who has been leading the fight to give Border Patrol greater operating freedom. “I don’t think they realize that the Border Patrol has to consult with the National Park Service before they can put up an antenna on that border.”
Nowhere are the fights between security and public lands managers more acute than those places officially designated as “wilderness” — a heightened level of protection for places the government deems so pristine they should be preserved in that state, free from man-made intrusions.
Once land is given the wilderness designation, tough new rules go into effect for permissible activities there. The no-nos include building or improving roads and putting up permanent structures like towers — exactly what the Border Patrol needs to do.
One Border Patrol agent recalled as a young agent 10 years ago, agents were not above cutting their own trails on those lands if it meant easier access and more apprehensions.
“We had people driving across, creating little two-tracks to get roads in there. I was the idiot driving. We’ve progressed past that, way past,” the agent said.
Land managers and law enforcement officers like Mr. Brasington agreed that cooperation is better today between their agencies and the Border Patrol than ever before.
The agencies have reached several memorandums of understanding, and in some cases the Border Patrol has even paid to rehabilitate land they’ve affected, or paid to have the agencies improve roads in non-wilderness areas.
“What’s working really well is the education part for Homeland Security folks,” Mr. Brasington said. “They have opened their doors to us in the past couple years to come in and educate the officers, explain to them what a wilderness area is. … I don’t think I’m seeing new damage caused by Border Patrol or the other folks who patrol our area.”
Mark South, a former Forest Service employee who decades ago wrote the guidelines for some of the wilderness designations here, now thinks efforts to write new wilderness into law go too far.
“Tell me, which is doing more damage to the environment: the fence or the people coming through, the trails, the litter, the water bottles?” he said. “I think now, with what we’re seeing along the border, trying to preserve anything beyond the existing laws now is pointless. Are wilderness needed? Yeah. How much is too much?”