Tuesday, September 22, 2009

On the Border: Wilderness Causes Degraded Environmental Quality & Security

Representative Rob Bishop’s (R-UT) is concerned about how the Department of the Interior is – or perhaps more appropriately isn’t - working with the Department of Homeland Security to secure our borders, and he let Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar know it at a hearing of the Committee on Natural Resources. As evidence of the issue’s gravity, Bishop points to a 2004 Interior Department report that had never been released to the public. According to the report the vast majority of the Organ National Pipe Monument in Arizona has been so degraded that it has lost its ‘wilderness’ character. Trash, vehicle tracks, foot trails and fire scars from illegal immigration and drug trafficking have severely degraded the Monument. Maps and images in the report (see photo) make a compelling case. The National Park Service’s website for the Monument, although cryptic, is consistent with the report indicating a list of roads and back-country areas simply closed off until further notice - your park lands ceded to coyotes and their human cargo and drug smugglers. The reason these areas are now government sponsored no-man’s lands may be even more troubling. Bishop stated that border patrol agents have been reporting “…that their hands are shackled when dealing with Interior officials on Interior Lands.” It seems that Interior may not be eager to put border security high on the agenda or share data revealing its environmental benefits. If Bishop gets his way, that may change. Bishop, the ranking member of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, lit into Secretary Salazar over Interior’s handling of several of his document requests. In addition to the documents regarding the border, Bishop requested documents regarding communications between the National Park Service and an advocacy group...The Foundry

Please remember that Congress has designated 95% of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument as a wilderness area. The Park Service website gives the following notice and list of closures for "visitor safety." From the website:

Due to our proximity to the International Boundary with Mexico, some areas near the border are closed for construction and visitor safety concerns.

Closed Roads: Conditions at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument periodically lead to closures of some roads and sections of the park. The following roads are closed indefinitely to vehicle traffic until further notice.

* Pozo Nuevo
* Camino de Dos Republicas
* South Puerto Blanco Drive
* North Puerto Blanco past the five-mile gate

Backcountry Areas: The following areas are closed to use until further notice.

* All backcountry areas are closed to overnight use. Many backcountry areas are open for day hiking only. Check at the Kris Eggle Visitor Center for the most current closure information.
* Red Tanks and Lost Cabin Mine trail complex are closed to all visitor use.
* Dripping Springs area from west of Pinkley Peak to North Puerto Blanco Drive is closed to all visitor use.
* Bates Mountains, Kino Peak and all areas south of the Bates Well Road, including areas along the Pozo Nuevo Road are closed to all visitor use.
* Sweetwater Pass area is closed to all visitor use.

Congress created a wilderness area which is now being trashed by illegal human smuggling and drug traffickers. The Park Service study referred to says that permitted back country visitors are outnumbered by illegal aliens trekking north by a ratio of ten to one, they are finding 150 abandoned vehicles per year, and that 130 deaths had occurred in the corridor.

Now comes Senator Bingaman who has introduced legislation to designate 259,000 acres as wilderness in southern New Mexico, much of it along the U.S.-Mexico border, and thus potentially creating the same situation in New Mexico. Does the Senator really believe a small corridor at the southern end of his proposal will really solve this problem for all 259,000 acres or 405 square miles of wilderness?

One can only hope the Senator will reconsider his position on this issue, especially since other designations are available which will protect the land while still allowing access to the Border Patrol and other law enforcement officials.

NOTE: I've served as an advisor to a western heritage group on this issue and am involved in natural resource issues across the west. The views expressed here are strictly my own and should not be attributed to any group or organization with whom I am or have been affiliated.

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