Sunday, February 28, 2010

Contractors association honors local company

February 28, 2010
The Desert Sun
by Monica Torline and Debra Gruszecki

Granite Construction Co.'s Southern California Region office in Indio has just been notified that the design-build project, “Monument 250,” is a finalist in the Associated General Contractors of California Constructor Awards gala at The Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco.

Granite's handling of the roadway and primary border barrier fence is being distinguished in the “Meeting the Challenge” category for difficult jobs in the heavy engineering classification.

Traversing mountainous terrain, the multimillion-dollar project handled out of the Indio location with a contractor and subcontractor team of 75 led to construction of 3.5 miles of steel fence, 7,754 cubic yards of concrete, 24,000 tons of native rock crushed on site, 500,000 cubic yards of moved earth, about a half-mile of drainage pipe and five large canyon bridge crossings.

Business development manager Lee Haven said the project in the San Ysidro Mountains, primarily in the Otay Mesa Wilderness area, took 385 working days to complete and dealt with conditions so severe the initial job walk inspection had to be done in a helicopter.

Among those traveling to the final judging event will be Granite's Southern California regional manager Pat Kelly; construction manager Brad Williams; and project manager Bob Ramage.

“We're very excited about it,'' Haven said. “Just making it to the finals is a big deal.”

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Agents arrest 3 in pot, gun, car seizures

Yuma Sun
February 25, 2010
by James Gilbert


Border Patrol agents also detected the illegal entry of a 2001 Chevrolet Tahoe sport utility vehicle Tuesday evening about 30 miles east of the San Luis, Ariz., port of entry.

When the SUV's occupants realized they had been detected by the Border Patrol and that agents were responding to the entry, the driver drove back toward the border to avoid arrest.

Once back at the border fence, the driver and three passengers abandoned the SUV and fled back into Mexico.

"They basically climbed the fence and returned to Mexico," Kuzia said.

While securing the vehicle agents discovered 107 bundles of marijuana stacked inside. The SUV, which was reported stolen, was turned over to YCSO.

The marijuana, which weighed 1,242 pounds with an estimated street value of $993,600, was turned over to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).


At Homeland Security, contractors outnumber federal workers

February 25, 2010
Washington Post
by Ed O'Keefe

The Department of Homeland Security said this week that it employs more private contractors than federal employees, an admission that officials blamed on the department's quick establishment seven years ago and the federal government's burdensome hiring process.

DHS officials informed Senate staffers this month that it employs roughly 200,000 contractors and about 188,000 federal employees. The figure does not include uniformed members of the Coast Guard, which is one of the department's 22 agencies.

"That raises a question of whether it's the most efficient use of taxpayer money, but also the question of who's making critical decisions at the department," Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) said Wednesday during a hearing of the homeland security committee on the department's annual budget requests. "Is it private contractors, or is it full-time federal employees?" He called the figures "shocking and unacceptable."

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called the estimates "a high number" but would not say, when asked by Lieberman, whether she thought the figure was too high.

"I think the number illustrates a problem, or an issue we have to work on," Napolitano told senators. "The department was stood up quickly, and in order to accomplish the many missions that it has, contracting was a mechanism to be used."

Paul Light, a Brookings Institution scholar on the federal government, disputed the DHS estimates, and said the number of contractors is likely to be much higher.

"I think it's a larger number, particularly when you start counting the subcontractors and the state and local employees who are working under grants and contracts," Light said. He authored a 2006 study that estimated that DHS created 140,000 contracting positions from 2002 to 2005, most for operations related to the Bush administration's response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

DHS agencies are reviewing the balance of government and contracting positions to determine which jobs should be "insourced," or converted to the federal payroll, Napolitano said. Her own office hopes to cut contractor support by 40 percent, according to the department's 2011 budget requests.

Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, applauded Napolitano's review but said DHS should focus less on the number of contractors and more on the skills they provide.

"I could have 100,000 federal employees, but if I don't have 100,000 federal employees with the right skills, that doesn't necessarily solve the challenge," Soloway said. His group is a national trade association for contracting firms, some of which will probably be hurt by the Obama administration's contracting reforms.

In addition to the contract review, the DHS is revisiting agreements exceeding $1 million as part of the Obama administration's contracting reforms. The Office of Management and Budget plans to provide more guidance to federal agencies next month on government functions that contractors can no longer conduct, an OMB spokesman said Wednesday.

Despite the planned contracting cuts, Napolitano also cited the government's lengthy hiring process as a motivation for the department's previous reliance on contractors.

Federal labor unions that have long fought DHS's use of contractors applauded congressional attention on the issue.

"We have been and continue to be concerned that the money spent on these spurious contracting-out initiatives could have been more wisely spent on equipment, training and right-sizing staffing at a number of airports," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents DHS workers.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Perry Gains Support Of Minutemen He Once Opposed

February 24, 2010
by Shelly Kofler

Governor Rick Perry sought to sew up his conservative credentials Wednesday as he announced an endorsement by the Minutemen. The Minutemen are volunteers who patrol the US-Mexican border in an effort to stop illegal immigration and smuggling.

Perry didn't support the group five years ago, but says he now backs the Minutemen because he's convinced their patrols operate within the law.

Perry: We wanted to make sure as they were being formulated in their early days that these weren't vigilante groups, that these weren't individuals that were going out and being armed and taking laws into their own hands. They proved to be what they said they'd be: another set of eyes in the neighborhood.

Perry and the Minutemen still differ on the need for a physical fence along the border. Perry says a wall from Brownsville to El Paso is not "doable." Perry supports patrolling the border with technology. Minuteman Founder Jim Gilchrist says he'll support a wall until Congress provides enough personnel to prevent border violence and crime.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Unusually wet Arizona winter leads to more illegal immigrant border deaths

February 13, 2010
Associated Press / Los Angeles Times

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — An unusually wet winter in Arizona this year has been lethal for illegal immigrants crossing from Mexico into the United States, with nine people dying from hypothermia since November.

The same number of immigrants died of hypothermia during the previous three winters combined.

"When you are wet, your risk is a lot higher," said Dr. Bruce Parks, chief medical examiner at the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office. "Wet clothing takes the heat away from the body. You've lost that insulation — your body can't react."

The 2.1 inches of rain that fell in Tucson in January made it the eighth-wettest January in Arizona's recorded history, and the wettest since 1993, according to the National Weather Service. And the 0.6 inches of rainfall through the first 10 days of February is nearly double the average for those days, said Ken Drozd of the National Weather Service.

During one particularly wet week in January, the bodies of three illegal immigrants who died of hypothermia were found.

Among them was Enrique Zapata Senduo, a 47-year-old Mexican who died in a pool of muddy water under a cottonwood tree in the desert southwest of Picacho Peak, about 75 miles southeast of Phoenix.

A rancher discovered his soaking-wet body in the late morning on Jan. 26. Zapata left his hometown of Mazatlan, Sinaloa, on Jan. 13 and planned to cross the border near Sasabe illegally, meaning he was likely out in the desert during the rainy days of Jan. 20-23, when nearly 2 inches fell in southern Arizona.

It's possible other illegal border crossers also have died from the cold this year or past years, but the cause of death often can't be determined due to the conditions of the bodies.

This winter, for instance, the cause of death of 32 of the first 57 bodies was undetermined, according to the Arizona Daily Star's border-death database. The database is compiled using information from the Pima and Cochise County medical examiners' offices.

Despite an estimated slowdown in illegal crossings, the number of bodies found continues at the same or higher levels. The 60 bodies found from Nov. 1-Feb. 12 mark a 58 percent increase from the same period last year and are more than in any of the previous five years.

Border authorities and humanitarian groups attribute the increase in deaths to the buildup of agents and border fences, which cause immigrants to walk longer distances in more treacherous terrain.

"They are staying up in the mountains longer than they ever have before," said Gene Lefebvre, a member of No More Deaths, a humanitarian group. "That means they are more likely to get injured or exhausted.",0,2799004.story

WILD ABOUT THESE CATS: State of ocelot population in Texas dire

February 18, 2010
Houston Chronicle
by Shannon Thompkins

The heavy aroma — an exotic combination of acrid, skunk-like odor and an almost cloying sweetness — caused Arturo Caso and Michael Tewes to exchange knowing smiles as they slowly, quietly and carefully pushed through a narrow opening in an otherwise impenetrable wall of clothes-shredding thornscrub.

To the two scientists, it was the unmistakable smell of success.

Proof squatted just a few yards deep in a thick tangle of brush on a hill above the Rio Soto la Marina in northeast Mexico.

In the shadows, a 23-pound spotted cat crouched inside a wire cage-trap, its amber eyes blazing as short, round ears atop its round head twitched.

The cat's coat, a stunning mix of gold, black, white and gray in splotches, streaks and stripes, was almost indistinguishable from the sun-dappled forest around it.

An ocelot!

After slowly backing out of the tangle, an obviously pleased Tewes whispered, “Smell that? That's ocelot scent — urine. They use it to mark their territory. Pretty distinctive, isn't it?”

Tewes would know. The 52-year-old Corpus Christi-area native has spent more than half of his life deeply involved with research and management of ocelots, medium-size wild felines that once ranged through much of south, central and east Texas but today are the most endangered mammal in the state.

Tewes has been working with ocelots since the early 1980s, when Texas may have held 100 or so of the sleek, secretive, knock-you-to-your-knees beautiful wild cats and understanding of their natural history was woefully thin.

“I saw my first (wild) ocelot on Texas Independence Day, March 2, 1982,” he said of his initial encounter with the almost wholly nocturnal felines.

Today, Dr. Tewes — regent professor, holder of the Frank Daniel Yturria Endowed Chair in Wild Cat Studies, and research scientist with the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Kingsville — is arguably the world's most experienced expert on ocelots.

And Texas' ocelot population — the only ocelots remaining in the United States — has eroded to perhaps 50 animals.

A dire outlook in Texas
“Ocelots' situation in Texas is extremely dire,” Tewes said.

Lack of places to live is the overarching problem facing ocelots, considered by many to be the most beautiful wild cat in the Western Hemisphere.

The cats thrive only in habitat providing thick — really thick — cover. Large areas where woody vegetation — brush or trees — is so dense the leafy canopy shades 75-95 percent of the ground are the ocelot's niche.

But in Texas, that habitat has become almost as rare as the cats themselves. The miles of jungle-like tangles along rivers in the eastern half of the state and the nearly unbroken expanses of thick-set brushland in the lower Rio Grande Valley have vanished.

More than 95 percent of Texas' ocelot habitat has been converted to agricultural fields, rangeland or commercial forest. Most of what remains are tiny islands too small to support ocelots.

Texas' surviving handful of ocelots are confined to a couple of the larger remaining tracts of livable habitat in the Rio Grande Valley — one on the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Cameron County and the other on a private tract in adjacent Willacy County. Those two populations are struggling.

Surrounded by uninhabitable land, Texas' two ocelot populations can't grow. Those cats attempting to pioneer new areas wander into what, for an ocelot, is a wasteland and die from starvation, under the wheels of an automobile or from misadventure.

Long-term survival of Texas' ocelots depends on increasing the amount of habitat available to the cats and giving those animals travel corridors — strips of suitable habitat — connecting them to those scattered islands' suitable brushland.

But the cats face a looming threat in the short term.

Texas' ocelot population has fallen so low that inbreeding among the few remaining cats is rapidly eroding their genetic diversity. That genetic erosion invariably causes severe problems with reproduction and overall health.

“When you have an isolated population that small, it can't survive,” Tewes said. “They are in a death spiral.”

At the current rate of genetic erosion, Texas' isolated ocelots will suffer an inevitable population crash “probably in the next 20-40 years, and within 50 years, for sure,” Tewes said.

Perfect place for research
Texas' ocelot population desperately needs new blood. And that is what brought Tewes and fellow wild-cat scientists Arturo Caso and Sasha Carvajal-Villareal to the thorn-scrub-covered hills of central Tamaulipas earlier this month.

They are part of a cooperative effort between U.S. and Mexican scientists and officials, with crucial assistance of private landowners on both sides of the border, aimed at learning more about northeast Mexico's ocelot population and perhaps laying the groundwork for translocation of some of those Mexican cats to the Texas population.

Most of the effort is centered on the nearly 10,000 acres of dense Tamaulipan thornscrub on Rancho Caracol, a luxury wing-shooting resort in the rolling hills along the Rio Soto la Marina about 150 miles south of Brownsville.

Little more than a year ago, Rancho Caracol owner Barry Putegnat, a Rio Grande Valley native, contacted fellow Valley resident Frank Yturria about ocelots.

Yturria, whose family has extensive land holdings in Texas' ocelot range and has played a huge role in protecting what's left of the state's ocelot population, put Putegnat in touch with Tewes.

“I told Dr. Tewes we had ocelots on Rancho Caracol and if he was interested in studying them, we'd help any way we could,” Putegnat said.

“I really didn't think there would be many cats down there — some, but not a lot,” Tewes said. “I was pleasantly proven wrong.”

Tewes, Caso and Carvajal-Villareal, in cooperation with Mexican officials, set about surveying the cat population on the tract last spring. They set 40 remote-sensing “game” cameras along game trails and overlooking water holes.

The results were “amazing,” Tewes said. Rancho Caracol held a very healthy population of ocelots. And more. The tract, surrounded by thousands of acres of thornscrub, was the home of five species of wild cats — ocelot, bobcat, jaguarundi, cougar and jaguar.

An ambitious research project to document the ocelot population in the region was launched. The major thrust would be aimed at capturing as many ocelots as possible, fitting them with radio collars and tracking them over a year or more to determine their home ranges, yielding insight into their population density.

The ultimate goal is to show that the population of ocelots in the region is large enough and healthy enough that it would not be harmed by taking a few of those cats — three or four a year for a few years — and releasing them into the two genetically moribund Texas ocelot populations.

The project's early phase has been successful. Cameras have recorded 34 individual ocelots on the Rancho Caracol tract — almost as many ocelots as in all of Texas — and 11 have been captured and fitted with radio collars.

Caso and Carvajal-Villareal hope within a year or so to have the data they need to make a case for a translocation program.

“We learn a lot from every one of these cats,” Caso said, as he and other scientists fit one of the captured ocelots with a radio collar, took body measurements, and collected hair and blood samples for DNA profiles. “They are amazing, beautiful animals.”

Like anyone who sees an ocelot, Caso can't help but turn poetic when talking about these lithe, lethal creatures whose multicolored, splotched and spotted and streaked coats are perfectly designed for blending into their impossibly tangled, sun-dappled world.

“They are like smoke,” Caso said, watching a released ocelot stride into a wall of thornscrub and vanishing as though walking through a one-way mirror.

Those Mexican cats and the work scientists such as Caso and Tewes are doing in Mexico may well help Texas' fading ocelot population avoid disappearing like a very real wisp of smoke.

Monday, February 15, 2010

$57.7-million fence added to an already grueling illegal immigration route

February 15, 2009
Los Angeles Times
by Richard Marosi

Some question the cost, effectiveness and environmental effect of erecting a fence on Otay Mountain, where those who hiked three days up a steep, arid peak were often met by border agents anyway.

Reporting from San Diego - The border barrier dips and curves, zigs and zags, hugging the mountain's contours like a slimmed-down version of the Great Wall of China.

Among the costliest stretch of fencing ever built on the U.S.-Mexico border, the 3.6-mile wall of steel completed last fall is meant to block trafficking routes over Otay Mountain, just east of San Diego.

People seeking to enter the country illegally have hiked the scrub-covered, tarantula-infested peak for years, trying to get to roads leading to San Diego.

"We're no longer conceding this area to smugglers," said Jerome C. Conlin, a U.S. Border Patrol spokesman.

But critics are bewildered. Why, they ask, would people determined to scale a rugged, 3,500-foot peak be deterred by an 18-foot-high fence? They also point out that the Department of Homeland Security deemed it unnecessary in 2006.

"I think it's a Bush-era boondoggle that will have almost no consequence in terms of stemming the flow of immigration," said Char Miller, director of the environmental analysis program at Pomona College. "It was a political decision that took in no account of the environment itself, and in the process damages what was once a pretty remarkable landscape."

The $57.7-million project is one segment in the massive expansion of border infrastructure approved by Congress during George W. Bush's presidency. Homeland Security has erected fencing in small towns, remote valleys and high-desert mesas from the Pacific Ocean to Texas.

At about $16 million a mile, the Otay Mountain barrier cost about four times as much as similar border fencing built during this expansion, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The Border Patrol's San Diego sector was already one of the country's most heavily fortified frontiers before the mountain fence was constructed, with about 40 of the sector's 60 miles lined with vehicle or pedestrian barriers.

The fencing shifted immigrant flows to remote areas in the backcountry east of San Diego. But some migrants decided to climb Otay Mountain because of its proximity to a warehouse district in San Diego and its easy access on the Mexican side, where the Tijuana-Tecate toll road lies only a few hundred yards away.

Immigrants dropped off at staging grounds off the toll road headed up steep trails into the U.S. Their hikes through canyons and over the arid peak could take up to three days. With limited road access on the mountain, agents simply waited for people to descend to make arrests.

The lack of fencing did not seem to be a problem, said then-U.S. Border Patrol spokesman Richard Kite, interviewed in a 2006 article in the Arizona Daily Star. At Otay Mountain, "you simply don't need a fence. It's such harsh terrain it's difficult to walk, let alone drive," Kite said. "There's no reason to disrupt the land when the land itself is a physical barrier."

The agency said it changed course after reevaluating conditions in the area. Daryl Reed, a current Border Patrol spokesman, said strategies are in constant flux depending on quickly shifting migrant flows and smuggler activity.

"As we continue in our mission, we're always reevaluating situations," Reed said. "We're always going to adapt and change."

One analyst suggested that pressure from Congress to complete about 700 miles of fence led federal officials to approve some questionable projects.

"There's no question that there's tactical justification for certain fencing, but when you set up a target like that, it inevitably means that they're going to build fencing where the tactical justification is weak, and this sounds like one of those places," said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

But others doubted that border authorities would spend resources in an area that didn't need it.

"If there were other better places to build fencing, then I'm confident the Border Patrol would build it there," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

When the federal government broke ground last year, environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, said the project would damage the Otay Mountain Wilderness. Portions of the fence and the 5-mile access road lie in the federally protected area.

The federal government, trying to expedite construction of border fencing, waived more than 30 environmental laws in 2008, including the Wilderness Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and others that environmentalists said applied to the Otay area.

Contractors had to cut roads, remove boulders, bulldoze hillsides and remove about 530,000 cubic yards of rock to build the Otay fence, which consists of steel posts 4 inches apart topped with metal plates.

It's not clear whether the fence has been a deterrent.

Since the barrier's completion in October, illegal activity has declined and there have been few signs of people trying to cut or breach the fence, authorities say.

"Having this fence here is definitely going to slow them down. . . . It increases our probability of catching them," said Conlin, the Border Patrol spokesman.

But others say the fence's effectiveness hasn't been truly tested because fewer immigrants have been attempting to cross anywhere on the border due to the economic slowdown.

The funding, they said, could have been better spent hiring more agents or building infrastructure in other areas.

When the economy improves, the mountain will once again draw immigrants, fence or no fence, said Pedro Rios, director of the American Friends Service Committee in San Diego.

"It seems to me, if someone is able to climb the mountains in the Otay Wilderness, a 15-foot wall will not make a difference," he said.,0,5691127.story