Los Angeles Times
December 25, 2010
by Nicholas Riccardi
A proposal to consolidate a swath of 250,000 acres of wilderness study areas in New Mexico has sparked an outcry from groups fearing an influx of illegal immigrants and drugs from Mexico. But the Border Patrol says the designation has little effect on its work.
Reporting from the Potrillo Mountains Wilderness — A new front has opened in the centuries-old battle over preserving federal lands in the West, with some advocates of a tighter border arguing that designating some lands as wilderness — meaning they are so precious that no mechanized vehicle can enter — hinders border security.
The U.S. Border Patrol and other law enforcement agencies can take vehicles into wilderness areas while chasing lawbreakers. But to patrol the lands by vehicle, plant sensors or build operating bases, they must get permission from the federal agency controlling the region. Some retired agents say they were told by managers of wilderness areas that they could not use helicopters to pick up injured migrants, or that they could patrol only on horseback.
Critics point to Arizona, the main gateway for illegal immigrants and drugs from Mexico; much of that traffic passes through wilderness areas in the south-central and eastern parts of the state. A Border Patrol agent was shot to death this month in an isolated canyon south of Tucson, in an area being studied for wilderness designation.
Republican Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah has proposed a law to allow the Border Patrol unlimited access to federal lands along the border, just as it has access to all private land. The current situation, he said, forces the agency to ask permission to do its job.
"There is now a conflict," he said, "between wilderness and border security."
Environmental groups and some federal officials, however, contend that the conflict is overblown and that there is more cooperation than confrontation between the Border Patrol and land managers. They point to a Government Accountability Office report issued in October that found that 22 of 26 Border Patrol station chiefs in the southwest said that though environmental regulations can cause delays, they have no effect on overall security.
Lynn Scarlett, who as deputy secretary of Interior under President George W. Bush in 2006 drew up an agreement with the patrol on how to police wilderness lands, acknowledged there have been misunderstandings over the issue.
But she argued that the belief that Border Patrol efforts are hindered in wilderness areas stems not from facts, but a deep distrust of federal environmental protections among some in the West. "The debate about the Border Patrol becomes another vehicle for that long-standing debate," she said.