Here is an excerpt for Brady McCombs' article in the Arizona Daily Star:
"The landscape of saguaros, mesquite trees and prickly pear cactus here has a new feature - steel railroad rails welded into crisscrosses and connected by flat rails. This rusting structure is a vehicle barrier designed to stop drug and people smugglers who barrel across the desert in trucks. The barriers are common at the international line - there are more than 139 miles of them along Arizona's stretch of U.S.-Mexico border. But this isn't the border. This 1.3-mile stretch of "Normandy-style" vehicle barriers was recently erected 70 miles north of the border on the Bureau of Land Management's Sonoran Desert Monument, just south of Interstate 8 and southwest of Casa Grande. It is likely the first time border barriers have been used this far north, and the latest example of how managing public lands along the U.S.-Mexico border is now as much about dealing with trash and trails left behind by illegal border crossers as it is about monitoring endangered animals or watering holes. BLM officials put up the barrier to redirect traffic around the federally protected Table Top Wilderness Area, where cars are prohibited... The barrier is on the southern boundary of Table Top, which borders the northern edge of the Tohono O'odham Nation. Smugglers have carved a grid of illegal roads through the wilderness area as they cross the O'odham land and cut through Table Top on their way toward Phoenix, inflicting serious damage to the habitat. The recently completed barrier has already diverted vehicle smuggling around the wilderness area, and BLM crews have begun restoring the lands damaged by the roads... There are already vehicle barriers or fences up along the international border in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge and the Coronado National Forest... Federal law enforcement officers at the six border public lands visited by GAO officials this year said they spend 75 to 97 percent of their time responding to threats from illegal cross-border activity, the report found. At Organ Pipe, drug smugglers regularly use the visitor center parking lot as a staging area, says a Border Patrol threat assessment in the GAO report... The estimated 2,000 tons of trash left behind by smugglers and illegal immigrants has harmed the fragile Sonoran Desert, landing Buenos Aires, Organ Pipe and Cabeza Prieta on lists of most imperiled federal lands at different points this decade... Since last fall the GAO has been evaluating the relationship between federal land managers and federal law enforcement, issuing two reports in the past four months about an improving but flawed relationship. The first report concluded that federal rules governing public lands along the border cause some delays but do not prevent the Border Patrol from handling its assignment to secure the border." Link to Full Article
Analysis: There are two different and major issues brought up in this article. The first is the "please go around" policy the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has had little choice but to implement, and the second is the trashing of our southwest desert and national parks by drug and human smugglers. I'm not sure which disturbs me more, but let's take a look at each one.
We all know that drug and human smuggling activity doesn't automatically stop and disappear within a certain distance from the border. So it's not entirely surprising that these barriers are being erected 70 miles inland. However, it is remarkably disturbing to me that the approach being taken is one of deflection rather than interdiction. I know the BLM and other law enforcement agencies just don't have the people or resources to stop and arrest every drug and human smuggler that wants to barrel through these areas and trample the environment. That's a secondary concern to me; I can't stand that these smugglers have to be merely redirected and aren't being outright stopped. I wouldn't be surprised to see signs erected in the next year that say "Please excuse our mess."
The next issue, speaking of messes, is the outright trashing of these parks and forests by smugglers. I ticked off a few people a few days ago when I posted a comment on Twitter along the lines of, why do environmentalists get so mad about the damage caused by the border fence and stay relatively silent when it comes to the trash left behind by smugglers? I got a couple of decent responses. One was that the level of environmental damage caused by the fence is far greater than that caused by smugglers, so it was unfair for me to compare the two. Another was that environmentalists do care, but who would they protest or complain to? Narcos and coyotes in Mexico?
I think those are good arguments. However, I have my own response to both. First, I don't think there's a threshold for a level of environmental damage before people should start to get involved. There's a government website dedicated to informing the public about the tons of trash left by smugglers, as well as the efforts by agencies and volunteers alike to clean it up. Please check it out at http://www.azbordertrash.gov so you can find out more about how this is more than just a few shirts and empty water bottles strewn about. I'm not pointing this out because I'm a tree-hugger; far from it. I just don't believe that if you fight for a cause, you should get to pick and choose what to get upset about based on level of severity. I also get upset that environmentalists don't get upset about the damage caused by illegal marijuana grows run by Mexican DTOs in US national parks and forests, but that's another blog post.
The next point: Who would said environmentalists, or just concerned citizens, complain to? Our federal and state governments, of course. No, technically they're not the ones causing the damage, unlike the border fence that they pay for. However, our government is charged with protecting our territory from damaging incursions by drug and human smugglers, and it's only our governments that are capable of providing more resources to the agencies that can stop those smugglers. Trust me, the BLM and Border Patrol don't want to spend their time picking up trash! They want to catch bad guys. Badly. But since in many cases, they don't have enough trained people to stop these folks at the border, they're left with erecting vehicle barriers that just redirect smugglers further inland to continue their illegal activities.
So don't go across the border and complain to a smuggler...that's no bueno. But if you care about the environment along the southwest border and beyond, or if you're simply ticked off that we can't stop these criminals and have to force them to "please go around," you can be vocal about it, and you can complain. I've been calling for more resources to be sent to the right places in order to better address border security problems, and your elected officials are always a good place to start if you want to do the same and don't have the luxury of a public "pulpit" like a blog. It's our soil, folks; let's not give it away because we didn't try hard enough to keep it.