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GOP lawmakers, Sierra Club at odds on border bills

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As federal legislators push bills to add infrastructure and waive environmental regulations in the name of border security, a regional chapter of the Sierra Club is raising flags about the possible impacts on area wildlife and ecosystems.

During a community meeting and border tour Saturday in Nogales, Dan Millis, the Borderlands program organizer for the environmental group’s Grand Canyon Chapter, said that the House and Senate versions of the Secure the Border First Act of 2015, both introduced in late January, would be a threat to a number of species whose territories straddle the international border.

“This is obviously a thinly veiled attack on environmental protections disguised as a border security bill,” Millis told a group of about 20 people at the Kasa Mia restaurant. Many attendees were Sierra Club members from Tucson or further north, though there were a handful of local residents. State Sen. Andrea Dalessandro was also in attendance.

Both H.R. 399 and S. 208 would allow the Secretary of Homeland Security to waive a number of federal laws up to 100 miles from either the Mexican or Canadian border, including the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Historic Preservation Act. The bills would also grant U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel “immediate access to federal land within 100 miles” of both national borders and prohibit the “Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture” from impeding any CBP activities.

Similar measures have been introduced in the House in recent years but have not made it past the Senate.

Sen. John McCain and Rep. Matt Salmon, both Arizona Republicans, also introduced the Arizona Borderlands Protection and Preservation Act in their respective chambers on March 17. The bill would require federal land agencies to “provide U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel with immediate access to federal lands” in both the Tucson and Yuma Border Patrol sectors.

“For decades, drug cartels and human smugglers have exploited U.S. land management laws by crossing our borders illegally and harming Arizona’s national parks and protected areas. Amazingly, the laws put in place to protect these lands also prevent Border Patrol agents from doing their jobs,” McCain and Salmon said in a joint statement on their bill.

“Illegal immigration and drug trafficking has an adverse effect on the environment, as new trails are created, drug trafficking vehicles drive off road, fences are destroyed, and garbage can be left behind as groups cross the wilderness,” CBP Operations Officer John Lawson said in a statement. “It is in the interest of all stewards of our lands to patrol the areas that are impacted by transnational crime.”

For Millis, the few provisions of the three-page McCain/Salmon bill aren’t troubling because there are already few restrictions on CBP access to public lands, he said.

“I’m not too concerned by the McCain/Salmon bill because it’s totally redundant and unnecessary and doesn’t change the situation,” he added.

‘Toughest ever’

Both H.R. 399 and S. 208 would significantly expand CBP air operations, unmanned air operations, and surveillance, as well as establish two so-called forward operating bases in the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, which includes Santa Cruz County.

In a statement released on H.R. 399, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), who introduced the bill, said that it “ensures a smart, safe and cost-effective border by building fencing where fencing is needed and allocating technology where technology is needed.”

He later described it as the “toughest border security bill ever before Congress.”

The push for new fencing is of special concern to the Sierra Club, Millis said.

The bills call for 10 new miles of double layer pedestrian fencing and repairs and replacements for dozens more miles in the Tucson Sector, along with 54 miles of new road construction, according to the bill’s text. Both versions call for 114 miles of additional fencing border-wide and annual expenditures of more than $1 billion to fund their provisions through 2020, according to Millis and the text of the legislation.

“(Walls) block their migrations,” Millis said of the impact of fence building on regional species like jaguars, javelinas and deer. “If they need to migrate north or south, or up and down in elevation for their survival, that can be blocked or delayed. And it can actually fragment their habitat.”

Since 2008, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has operated under a waiver that allows it to build border fencing and related infrastructure in the Southwest without having to adhere to more than 30 environmental laws.

Even so, “(t)he preservation of our valuable natural resources is of great importance to CBP and we are fully engaged in efforts that consider environmental impact as we work to secure our nation’s borders,” Lawson said, adding that “CBP is not aware of any studies or data which support a conclusion that the border fence has resulted in any measurable impact on wildlife movement.”

Walls and water

Beyond wildlife impacts, Millis said fencing also has serious impacts on water, and cited last summer’s flooding on Western Avenue in Nogales as an example of the sort of destruction that can result when walls bisect watersheds. During a monsoon downpour in late July 2014, Border Patrol agents did not open floodgates in the fence across Ephraim Canyon, causing significant debris to build up that eventually toppled the fence.

While Dalessandro (D-Sahuarita) said that her ability as a state senator to address the issues raised Saturday are limited, she was troubled by them nevertheless.

“I think flooding is devastating and the fragmented habitat corridors, I think are a disgrace,” she said after the presentation.

During a tour of Arizona ranchland on the border that was part of Saturday’s program, Patagonia resident Joyce Sander described the nearby fence and vehicle barriers as a “shame” and expressed specific concern about the endangered jaguar.

“When you know about the jaguar in the area, (you realize) it’s really impacting their lives,” she said.

Local rancher Jim Chilton, who did not attend the Sierra Club meeting, said wildlife needs must be balanced against other priorities, including national security and the “horrible” deaths of migrants in the desert.

Smuggling trails crisscross Chilton’s ranch, which abuts 5.5 miles of the border and is separated from Mexico by a four-strand barbed wire fence that runs for about 25 miles west of Nogales, he said by phone Monday morning.

“What’s more important to America? Is it national security, people dying in the desert, or is it wildlife connectivity?” he said.

In addition to more fencing, sensors, cameras, and forward operating bases, the Border Patrol needs a road that runs along the border to provide faster access to remote areas, Chilton said.

“The environmentalists want wildlife connectivity in that 25 miles,” he said. “They regard it as more important that a female jaguar may come into the United States in maybe 50 or 75 years.”

(Additional reporting by Curt Prendergast.)

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