- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 1, 2017

LUKEVILLE, Arizona — A stroll to Quitobaquito Spring, a desert oasis and the crown jewel of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southern Arizona, was forbidden a decade ago, the victim of a border out of control.

Even a few years ago, visitors would be allowed only if accompanied by Park Service rangers armed with military-style rifles. The park’s superintendent at the time, Lee Baiza, wondered whether visitors would ever be able to walk to the oasis alone.

Fast-forward to 2017, and a solitary walk is not only possible, but it’s also a delight. It’s a chance to be alone with a few ducks, turtles and the endangered pupfish that makes its home in the oasis and the spring that feeds it.

Organ Pipe is one of the success stories of the border, where a combination of stiffer enforcement, changing migration patterns and a new spirit of cooperation between federal agencies has produced gains unimaginable just a few years ago.

“The park is open, it’s absolutely gorgeous, it’s safe,” Brent Raines, the superintendent, told The Washington Times in an interview earlier this year, recounting the trajectory that took Organ Pipe from ground zero for the border wars back to a national gem.

It’s a scene that has played out across Arizona, where the federal government for years fought a battle that pitched land managers against Homeland Security, with smugglers emerging as the chief victors — and the public lands the losers.

SEE ALSO: Border wall foes lobby judges to halt construction

The U.S.-Mexico border lies several hundred feet away, the dividing line amounting to a few strands of barbed wire and metal barriers to stop cars and trucks from barreling across. Tractor-trailers speed along the highway on the Mexican side.

It’s easy to see why, for more than a decade, this spot was considered prime crossing territory for illegal immigrants and smugglers. The monument, run by the National Park Service, was a beautiful but barren landscape with little infrastructure to stop anyone determined to cross.

Indeed, the park for years fought the Border Patrol’s efforts to stiffen the defenses, arguing that barriers, roads and radar towers would ruin the wilderness that the park was chartered to protect.

But the illegal immigrants were doing a great job of injuring that wilderness on their own.

50,000 pounds of trash

At the worst point, tens of thousands of illegal immigrants and smugglers crossed the southern Arizona borders each month, cutting trails on foot or barreling through in vehicles. Known as kamikaze runs, the vehicles would drive until they broke down and the smugglers would bail out, leaving the broken-down cars or trucks to rust away.

They left mountains of trash in their wake, too. Ironwood National Forest, deeper into the U.S., would haul out as much as 50,000 pounds of trash each year. Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge counted twice that.

Forest fires started by smugglers or migrants burned the lands.

The roads and trails, meanwhile, lasted for decades in the desert landscape. Aerial photos showed them overrunning Organ Pipe and nearby Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Coronado National Forest and other delicate federal lands.

What little infrastructure there was consisted of strands of barbed wire strung between posts. Even when it wasn’t stolen by ranchers on the Mexican side, it did little to stop incursions.

The worst came in 2002, when a cartel hit squad that had just committed a string of killings fled Mexico, breaching the border in Organ Pipe to escape authorities there. Kris Eggle, a park ranger who was responding to the incursion, was killed in the line of duty.

The park, which was subsequently voted the most dangerous in the National Park Service system, responded by shutting down some 70 percent of its territory and posting stern warnings to visitors.

Fast-forward to 2017, and most of Arizona is now protected by some stiffer border barrier — either a vehicle blockade or, in some cases, an 18-foot pedestrian fence. The number of Border Patrol agents assigned to Arizona doubled from 2004 to 2014.

Perhaps most important, the land managers and Homeland Security Department officials who used to be at odds with each other figured out ways to work together.

“The overriding issue is that there has been a realization on all sides that the Homeland Security overall mission of keeping our mission safe, and Interior Department mission of keeping our wildlands wild, or managing wildlife or endangered species, that the two are not mutually exclusive,” said William R. Radke, who has managed several of the border refuges.

Simple actions such as removing mesquite trees have helped the land management goals and cut down on spots where smugglers and crossers could lay up and hide from Border Patrol agents.

With prodding from Washington, the land managers allowed more access to the Border Patrol, which was able to place sensors and erect towers.

Both sides also found they needed to be on the same frequency — literally. Communication between the federal land agencies’ own law enforcement and the Border Patrol had to improve, including making sure their radios could connect. They also needed to get a better understanding of one another’s missions.

Mr. Radke said his staff will now get alerts from Border Patrol agents who see someone illegally collecting wildlife from the refuge.

Nothing greased the cooperation like cash, though. Homeland Security began to shell out money to repair borderlands injured by its agents or to assist the land managers’ preservation jobs.

Bat revival

Now, visitors are coming back to the parks in Arizona. Campground at Organ Pipe visits were up 66 percent in 2016 compared with 2013. The Kris Eggle Visitor Center — named after the ranger slain in 2002 — had a 55 percent surge over that time.

To the east, at Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the nearly 1,000 illegal immigrants who crossed through each day went down to about three.

Meanwhile the San Bernardino refuge, which averaged 14 arrests a day in 2008, averaged just 2.5 daily in 2015. Over the first 150 days of 2017, it recorded four arrests — total. That works out to 0.03 people a day, or a 99 percent drop from just two years ago.

The environment has also shown gains, with a key example being the lesser long-nosed bat, a desert pollinator in southern Arizona that landed on the endangered list in 1988.

The bat uses abandoned mines and caves — many of them on the federal park, forest and refuge lands — as roosting spots.

A decade ago, illegal immigrants discovered one of the caves on the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and began using it as a hideaway, chasing the bats out. The refuge erected a fence around the cave, which helped for a while.

The big breakthrough came when Homeland Security helped pay for a survey of the bat population, and scientists concluded that the bat was relatively stable. Meanwhile a host of local institutions — everyone from the U.S. Army to Mexican tequila producers — began assisting with conservation.

Things are going so well that the Fish and Wildlife Service in January proposed delisting the bat — a rare success story in species management.

“The fact that DHS has kind of come to the rescue of some of these species and at the same time isn’t walking away from their mission is a pretty neat thing,” Mr. Radke said.

Go-slow approach

Environmentalists, though, urge a more cautious approach to the bat and to the broader issue of stiffer border security.

Defenders of Wildlife filed comments saying that while the bat may not be endangered, it should still be listed as threatened.

They said that while conservation efforts have worked, Homeland Security hasn’t fulfilled its full financial commitment to borderlands restoration. The environmentalists say ongoing problems from illegal immigration — and from the law enforcement efforts to stop it — are too unpredictable to consider the bat permanently saved.

Overall, environmentalists warn, the presence of fences and agents can be worse for the environment than the flow of people who cross.

“The biggest changes since 10 to 15 years ago are pretty obvious to anyone who goes to the border and looks around. Now you’ll see hundreds of miles of walls and barriers where before we didn’t have them,” said Dan Millis, borderlands program coordinator at the Sierra Club in Tucson.

The fence built along the Barry M. Goldwater bombing range near Yuma required waivers of nine federal laws, according to the Congressional Research Service.

To build fencing along the San Pedro conservation area in southeastern Arizona required the waiver of 20 federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Noise Control Act, the Antiquities Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, has issued waivers twice, covering some three dozen laws.

“A lot of folks out here feel steamrolled by that and feel unprotected by the fact that these laws that everyone else can take for granted have been dismissed out here,” Mr. Millis said.

As attention shifts to President Trump’s call for a new round of wall-building, environmentalists are gearing up for another fight — and they may have new ammunition in the form of the jaguar.

Three of the big cats have been photographed in Arizona since 2015, and environmentalists have pushed for special protections. The Obama administration complied, designating more than 800,000 acres as habitat deemed critical to preserving the jaguar. The environmentalists’ targets were proposed mines, which they said would destroy thousands acres of the cats’ preferred terrain.

Environmentalists warn that progress could be reversed with a border wall, which they say could divide the landscape, cutting off the big cats from critical habitat.

“If you were to try to wall the whole border off, my point is that people will continue to use ladders to climb over that wall, and the jaguar would be stuck,” Mr. Millis said.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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