San Diego Union-Tribune
August 25, 2008
SOUTH COUNTY – In the fall of 1990, an environmental activist from Imperial Beach received a presidential award at the behest of his congressman.
Mike McCoy was being honored with a Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Award, at the time presented by Republicans for stewardship of the environment. The congressman who nominated him was Duncan Hunter.
The Democratic veterinarian and the Republican congressman, who at the time represented Imperial Beach, didn't see eye to eye on everything, but they agreed on a surprising number of issues. There was sewage entering the Tijuana River estuary, and McCoy was working with Hunter's staff to clean it up.
A friendship of sorts emerged from their unlikely alliance. Once upon returning from Washington, Hunter gave McCoy, who chaired his environmental committee, a copy of a sketch drawn by Ronald Reagan of one of Hunter's sons.
“Thanks, McCoy,” he dedicated it.
Fast-forward almost two decades, and the one-time collaborators are at opposite ends of a long-running controversy over a new border fence and the eventual fate of the estuary.
Their disagreement is in a sense a conflict of life legacies. McCoy, 66, has dedicated the bulk of his life's work to preserving the estuary. Along with other environmentalists, he led the losing legal battle against a plan to build a double fence across a deep canyon known as Smuggler's Gulch.
The massive project, already under way, requires filling the canyon with so much dirt that the California Coastal Commission ruled four years ago that it could damage the estuary, increasing silt erosion and destroying sensitive wildlife habitat.
Hunter, 60, the former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is best known for promoting border security as an antidote to illegal immigration. He has been the project's strongest proponent, introducing legislation three years ago that waived all laws hampering fence construction.
“Mike McCoy is a good guy,” said Hunter, who retires in January. “People of good will can look at exactly the same set of facts and come to opposite conclusions.”
The two maintain a mutual respect from afar, but they haven't spoken in years. McCoy blames their parting of ways chiefly on the fence.
“I think he saw me as an obstacle,” he said recently.
McCoy is familiar with being in this position. In the early 1970s, the then-recent transplant from Colorado got wind that Imperial Beach city leaders planned to develop the wetlands south of town into a marina.
The estuary was by no means pristine, its northern end used as a dumping ground. The City Council argued that a marina would help the cash-poor city.
It was the only sizable estuary on the Southern California coast still untouched by development, and McCoy felt strongly that developing it would cause greater harm than proponents understood.
“The fisheries of the world rely on estuaries,” he said. “In my mind, it was criminal to destroy it.”
For close to a decade, he and others campaigned to block the marina, and in late 1980, the estuary was protected. It is now known as the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve.
Also that year, Hunter won the congressional district seat that included Imperial Beach. Though not what one would call a tree-hugger, Hunter had concerns about raw sewage from Tijuana spilling into the ocean, as did constituents.
“In rainy weather, sewage from Tijuana was getting into the Tijuana River,” he said recently. “It was going into the estuary.”
McCoy was an advocate for cleaning it up, and though he hadn't voted for Hunter, he volunteered to work with him on the sewage issue.
“He was definitely helpful to me,” McCoy said of his association with Hunter. “Until we got into this border fence thing.”
At first, the two agreed on the idea of a border fence to stem illegal immigration traffic through Imperial Beach. From Hunter's point of view, the fence would keep undocumented migrants and drug smugglers out of the country. From McCoy's, it would keep the estuary from being hammered by foot traffic.
Starting in the late 1980s, Hunter's staff set about locating used military landing mat for Army welders to fashion into a metal fence.
McCoy said he has since had second thoughts, especially after tighter enforcement policies in 1994 drove migrants east to the desert.
“People died out there,” he said. But at the time, “from our little point of view, it shifted the traffic.”
His support for Hunter's plans had begun to wane by the mid-1990s, after Hunter became a proponent for legislation calling for layers of fence extending 14 miles inland.
Under the new plan, Smugglers' Gulch would be filled with more than 2 million cubic yards of dirt to build a half-mile, 165-foot-tall earthen bridge supporting fencing and roads.
A series of revisions came and went over several years as advocates pushed for a more environmentally sensitive plan, but nothing was agreed upon.
In early 2004, McCoy's organization, Southwest Wetlands Interpretive Association and other groups sued the federal government.
Getting the waiver
For Hunter, the process had been an exercise in frustration.
“It became clear that we would never get permission,” he said. “So we wrote the waiver language into the Real ID Act.”
The purpose of the Real ID Act of 2005 was to impose federal security standards on state identification cards. Hunter added language that would allow the Homeland Security secretary to supersede laws stopping fence construction.
In September 2005, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff set a precedent by waiving the laws on which the San Diego lawsuit was based; the lawsuit later was thrown out of court.
A $48.6 million contract for the project was awarded this year.
For Hunter, who lives in Alpine and leaves Congress after an unsuccessful bid last year for the Republican presidential nomination, it's the achievement of a goal that became a personal crusade.
“The security of the country is the primary interest,” he said. “In carrying out that interest, the environment can be accommodated.”
Hunter said ponds and structures can arrest silt that results from the operation. McCoy hopes there will be such protections but isn't confident.
His best hope, McCoy said, is that if the fence comes down some day, what damage occurs can be repaired. He also has given quite a bit of thought to the fences he once thought were a good idea.
“If people want to come here, they are going to come,” he said. “I see it as a barrier that needs to lead to a solution. That's the only way I can face it.”