Tower Sites Planned For Protected Public Land

Tower sites planned for protected public land
Virtual fence to run through Cabeza Prieta, Organ Pipe

By Brady McCombs
The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson), July 7, 2008

A pair of nationally protected public lands in Southwestern Arizona have been tabbed as future sites for the Department of Homeland Security's virtual fence.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is slated to receive seven surveillance towers later this year as part of the Ajo-1 project, which calls for 11 towers in the area, said Barry Morrissey, spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Washington, D.C.

The Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge is in future plans, but two years out, Morrissey said.

Officials at Organ Pipe and Cabeza Prieta say they've been in discussions with Homeland Security for months about the placement of surveillance towers on their lands. The two public lands are located side by side along 88 miles of U.S.-Mexico border that stretches from western Pima County into Yuma County.

The principal concern for both is that the 80- to 200-foot-high towers equipped with a combination of camera, radar and communication gear will be placed inside fenced-in areas about 80 by 80 feet, a footprint large enough to be harmful to habitat and wildlife.

The Border Patrol says the information gathered by the towers will help agents more efficiently track and catch illegal immigrants and drug smugglers.

At Cabeza Prieta, officials and wildlife advocates are especially concerned about the impacts on the estimated 75 to 100 endangered Sonoran pronghorn that live in the wildlife refuge. It is the only wild population of the subspecies left in the U.S. Two other groups roam across the border in Sonora.

In a letter to Secure Border Initiative Executive Director Gregory L. Giddens dated April 4, 2008, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle wrote that the proposed locations of seven towers and four repeater locations would be in prime pronghorn habitat within the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.

'The project would result in lower recruitment of pronghorn fawns in the area and, over time, may ultimately lead to the eventual extinction of the species,' Tuggle wrote.

Matt Clark, Southwest representative of Defenders of Wildlife, is also concerned. 'We have all our eggs in one basket there on the Cabeza Prieta,' Clark said. 'When there is a prolonged drought and the animals are stressed, literally, a series of human disturbances can kill the animals.'

Clark said he hopes Homeland Security officials determine they need more time to analyze potential impacts the towers would have on the Sonoran pronghorn and that they will conduct an official in-depth consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as required by law.

The consultations are supposed to be performed anytime a federal project might affect an endangered species, he said. But during the flurry of environmental assessments put out for the hundreds of miles of border fences, roads and towers going up in the past few years, they've often been rushed, Clark said.

Homeland Security did one for the jaguar and lesser long-nosed bat in just 15 days last August.

'That is lightning-fast and quite frankly, unfair,' Clark said.

Arizona has become home turf for Homeland Security's virtual fence. Boeing Co., which was awarded the prime contract for the Secure Border Initiative in September 2006, led a test project called Project 28 last year along the border flanking Sasabe. The test was delayed because of glitches and concluded as a disappointment to many in the Border Patrol and a failure to critics.

Boeing now heads a new project, scheduled to begin in late July, to construct 45 new surveillance towers and upgrade 12 existing ones to create a virtual fence targeting 81 miles of Arizona's border between Sasabe and Sierra Vista as part of a project called Tucson West.

The draft environmental assessment for the Ajo-1 project is scheduled to be released on July 31, followed by a 30-day public comment period, Morrissey said.

At the 331,000-acre Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, they've become accustomed to border-security construction projects along their 32 miles of border flanking Lukeville.

After monument ranger Kris Eggle, 28, was shot to death during a confrontation with Mexican drug smugglers at the monument in 2002, the National Park Service paid to erect 30 miles of steel vehicle barriers along the international border.

Currently, a private construction company is nearing completion of a 5.2-mile primary fence that flanks the port of entry in Lukeville.

Lee Baiza, Organ Pipe superintendent, doesn't oppose the towers but admits they 'will take some getting used to' for monument staff members and visitors.

The location of the towers is paramount, and Homeland Security officials have been willing to compromise to some degree, he said.

'They have been as flexible as they could be,' Baiza said.

With seven rugged mountain ranges, valleys and saguaros, the 860,000-acre Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge has become home to the only wild Sonoran pronghorn in the U.S.

Conditions at the refuge aren't ideal for the pronghorn. In addition to being mired in a prolonged drought, the trash, trails and roads left behind by nearly a decade of heavy illegal- immigrant and drug-smuggling traffic have landed the refuge on two dubious lists in the past four years.

This year, a report by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility named Cabeza Prieta one of the 10 most imperiled national wildlife refuges in the country.

In 2004, Defenders of Wildlife named the refuge one of the 10 refuges most at risk.

That means suitable, undisturbed habitat for the Sonoran pronghorn has diminished.

If the towers are placed in those areas, it could be devastating for the animals, which are very sensitive to the presence of people, whom they perceive as predators, Clark said.

On March 24, representatives from several state and federal agencies met to discuss the impacts of the proposed tower sites on the pronghorn, Tuggle's letter said.

'All of the participants agreed the CBP (Customs and Border Protection) proposal would result in significant adverse effects to pronghorn,' Tuggle wrote.

The group agreed that placing the towers along the Camino del Diablo, already an established, worn-down, public road that runs parallel to the border, would be a better option, the letter said.

Former Cabeza Prieta refuge manager Roger Di Rosa, who retired on April 3, agrees.

Locating the towers on the Camino del Diablo would be better even if that meant more towers and the construction of new roads, Di Rosa wrote to Kirk Evans of the Department of Homeland Security in a letter dated March 31. The proposed locations in Mohawk Valley would create such long-term impacts that 'maintaining the (pronghorn) population may not be possible,' Di Rosa wrote.

Homeland Security officials hope the towers will actually help the pronghorn by becoming a deterrent to human and drug smuggling and help Border Patrol agents more effectively patrol.

It's a point Clark concedes.

'It could ultimately have a net benefit,' Clark said. 'But, the sitings of the towers is key.'

It's unclear if the locations of the towers on Cabeza Prieta have been adjusted in response to the letters from Tuggle and Di Rosa.

Sharon Vaughn, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge specialist, called communication between refuge officials and Homeland Security 'good' and the meetings 'fruitful' but said they remain concerned about the towers' impacts on the Sonoran pronghorn population and the effects on the refuge's national wilderness areas, which cover 90 percent of the refuge.