Tuesday, August 4, 2009

BORDER FENCE: Critics push DHS, Interior to set mitigation goals

Land Letter
July 30, 2009
by April Reese

As contractors erect the last sections of a congressionally mandated fence across vast swaths of the U.S.-Mexico border, critics are pressing the Obama administration to begin mitigating the barrier's environmental impacts.

In a July 23 letter sent to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, 43 lawmakers urged the secretary to "consider the importance of monitoring, mitigation, and environmental training for border security personnel in order to quantify, compensate for and avoid the negative consequences of border security infrastructure and operations."

The members also suggested Napolitano create a "robust border-wide environmental monitoring program" and provide "sufficient mitigation funding for damage caused by border security infrastructure and enforcement activities."

In January, DHS received $50 million to offset the ecological harm done by the 700-mile fence, which was authorized by Congress under the 2005 Secure Fence Act (Land Letter, Jan. 22)

But while the $50 million is a good start, it is not enough to fully offset the environmental effects of the fence, the lawmakers wrote. "There are numerous impacts across the border caused by both security infrastructure and operations that will require significantly more resources to properly monitor and mitigate," the letter reads.

Matt Clark of Defenders of Wildlife's Tucson, Ariz., office estimates it could cost more than $1 billion for a comprehensive mitigation effort.

The Homeland Security appropriations bill passed by the House last month included an additional $40 million for borderlands monitoring and mitigation. The Senate version did not, however, and it is unclear whether the measure will survive further tinkering during conference negotiations.

Rick Schultz, national borderlands coordinator for the Interior Department, who is serving as Interior's liaison to DHS on mitigation of border fence impacts, said he would like to see the $40 million, if it remains part of the bill, go toward funding a comprehensive monitoring program.

"We need that monitoring program to keep an eye on species," both federally listed ones and unlisted ones, Schultz said. "It would help us in terms of monitoring the effects, both positive and negative on the desert communities down there." Interior is working with DHS to develop some pilot monitoring projects, he said.

Clark would also like to see the $40 million go toward monitoring. As it stands now, very little monitoring is being done, he said.

"In terms of really understanding the wildlife and ecological impacts, I think the federal government is flying blindfolded," he said. "We think we know which species are impacted, but there's very little science or monitoring going on on the ground."

Agency foot-dragging?

While Congress deliberates whether to provide more funding to address the fence's environmental consequences, the Interior Department is finalizing the list of projects that will be funded under the $50 million mitigation fund appropriated in January. Under an interagency agreement, DHS is to transfer the funds to Interior once the projects are decided upon. But despite a June 1 deadline, Interior has yet to issue a final list of projects.

While some have accused the departments of foot-dragging, Schultz said they simply want to make sure the projects provide the biggest ecological bang for the buck.

"There hasn't been a delay," Schultz said. "It just takes time to reach consensus and agreement on what the projects should be." Officials are also aware of the scrutiny the list will receive. "Since all of this will be available to the public, we want to make sure the projects are well justified and well deserved," he added.

Part of the problem, Schultz noted, is that biologists working at wildlife refuges, national monuments and other federally protected areas along the border have proposed more projects than the mitigation fund can pay for. "We've identified more projects than money available," he said. Officials are now trying to decide which of the projects should receive top priority, he added.

The projects will all focus on benefiting threatened and endangered species affected by the border fence. Types of projects that will likely receive funding include habitat restoration, habitat acquisition and biological monitoring of certain species, Schultz said.

Last April, then-DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff used his authority under the REAL ID Act of 2005 to waive 37 federal laws and all state, local and tribal laws to expedite construction of the fence along 500 miles of the border. Among the environmental laws included in the waiver were the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Schultz said he is hoping the list of mitigation projects will be finalized, and funds will flow into Interior's coffers within the next two to three months. "There is a sense of urgency," he said. "At least for me anyway, I've made it a priority to finish the list or projects and the interagency agreement."

Dan Millis, borderlands campaign organizer for the Sierra Club in Tucson, was more blunt. "Unfortunately, we're stuck with the problem now because our government acted so irresponsibly," he said. "It's an open wound. It's going to be difficult to bandage up. So we need to act as quickly as possible to address some of the damage."

Worsening conditions

The longer the government waits, the worse the damage could become, Millis said. That is because summer monsoons are hitting the desert borderlands, increasing the likelihood for flooding and erosion, he said.

In their July 23 letter, lawmakers noted that the National Park Service reported in August 2008 that border fencing along the Lukeville, Ariz., Port of Entry exacerbated seasonal flooding and accelerated erosion on the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, "threatening to permanently alter the hydrology of the area if modifications are not made to rectify the inadequate design."

While some of the damage to habitat, waterways and other resources cannot be compensated for, "there are creative ways to provide for both conservation benefits and effective border security at the same time," Clark said.

For example, near Yuma, Ariz., the clearing of tamarisk along the Colorado River benefited both wildlife and security, because it improved visibility. "There are win-wins out there, but there has to be a willingness to consider alternatives," he said. "What can be effective for both conservation and security? Those are the kinds of questions we need to be asking."


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