Arizona Daily Star
December 10, 2009
by Brady McCombs
A team of scientists brought together by the Department of the Interior is in Southern Arizona this week to develop a plan assessing the effects of the government's buildup of border security.
The 16 scientists are scheduled to take a tour of the U.S.-Mexico border and meet with residents, environmentalists and public land managers before they begin work on a document they expect to be ready by April 2010.
The $40,000 project will culminate in a draft environmental monitoring strategy that will provide the Department of Homeland Security a road map to evaluate the impact of border security on wildlife and the environment.
After the document is ready, it will be up to the Department of Homeland Security to implement recommendations, said Charles van Riper III, a supervisory research ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. The goal is to first conduct a pilot project to assess the effects on Department of Interior land along Arizona's stretch of U.S.-Mexico border. It will likely cost upwards of $40 million, officials say.
Environmentalists say it's an important first step by the government.
"There is actually now a plan that is developing with the real players sitting down to develop it," said Matt Clark, southwest representative of Defenders of Wildlife. "It can never be soon enough, but the ball is rolling."
Despite a $2.4 billion investment to build 264 miles of fencing and 226 miles of vehicle barriers along the Southwest border in the last five years, the impact of these barriers on border security is unknown, according to a September 2009 Government Accountability Office report.
U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who hosted a video conference on Monday with interested parties said there has been a shift from the previous presidential administration in regard to border security.
Under the Bush administration, the Department of Homeland Security invoked a waiver on several occasions to expedite the construction of border fences and vehicle barriers.
Use of those waivers eroded public trust in Homeland Security, said Clark and Dan Millis, borderlands campaign organizer with the Sierra Club.
"We are trying to heal a lot of the wounds from the way things have been done in the past," Millis said. "The fact that we have a dialogue is encouraging. This is a good first step."
The team of scientists includes 13 men and women from Arizona, including three from the University of Arizona.