5 Virtual Fence Towers On Buenos Aires Get Initial OK

5 virtual fence towers on Buenos Aires get initial OK

By Brady McCombs
The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson), August 22, 2008

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has given Homeland Security officials the initial green light to construct five virtual fence towers on the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge southwest of Tucson.

In a draft compatibility determination released today, Buenos Aires managers decided that the potential long-term benefits of the towers reducing illegal-immigrant traffic and associated Border Patrol activity on the refuge outweighed the expected harm, including loss of habitat at tower sites, and wildlife and habitat disturbance during construction, maintenance and operation, the report says.

'Based on the information provided by DHS (Department of Homeland Security), the refuge expects that successful operation of the towers will result in a decrease in the environmental impacts caused by illegal immigration as well as an overall reduction in DHS operations on the refuge,' the report said. 'These reductions will enhance the experience members of the public have when visiting the refuge.'

Homeland Security wants to place five permanent towers on the Buenos Aires refuge: four surveillance towers and one communications tower. The surveillance towers would stand 80 feet and the communications tower 120 feet. All five towers would be placed on concrete foundations and be enclosed by chain-link fence.

The surveillance towers are capable of viewing a 360-degree area for 24 hours a day with a radius of about 6 miles, the report said.

The towers would be among 57 planned in a project dubbed Tucson West that would create a virtual fence targeting 81 miles of Arizona's border between Sasabe and a point south of Sierra Vista.

The reality that Homeland Security plans to put virtual fence towers around the refuge also influenced the refuge's decision, the report said.

'If no towers are constructed on the refuge, there could potentially be a greater influx of illegal immigrants through the area,' the report said. 'Illegal immigrants quickly learn where they are most likely to be detected and where they can hide. If towers are detecting illegal immigrants everywhere but the refuge, then illegal immigrants will be more likely to travel through the refuge.'

The public will have until Sept. 2 to comment on the draft, and officials will take the feedback into account in making a final decision, said Fish and Wildlife spokesman Jose Viramontes.

Fish and Wildlife is hoping to release its final determination no later than the week of Sept. 8, Viramontes said. If the final determination remains compatible, a special-use permit for the towers will be given to Homeland Security.

It was unclear Thursday if a Fish and Wildlife decision to allow the towers would prompt Homeland Security to instruct Boeing Co., the lead contractor, to resume work on the virtual fence.

In the past week, Homeland Security officials put all virtual-fence work on an indefinite hold. The agency said it was awaiting permission from the Interior Department to use its lands.

Interior Department officials said Homeland Security submitted requests to place towers on two Arizona public borderlands July 10 just five days before it planned to begin construction.

In addition to the Tucson West project, Homeland Security has plans for a second project, called Ajo-1, that calls for 11 towers in Southwestern Arizona, including seven in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. It has been put on hold until the department can resume construction of the Tucson West towers.

The Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge is in one of the busiest corridors for illegal-immigrant and drug-smuggling traffic on the Southwest border. An estimated 100,000 to 300,000 illegal immigrants cross there annually, the report says.

Nearly a decade of this activity has left scars on the refuge and recently landed it on an undesirable Top 10 list the most imperiled national wildlife refuges in the country, according to a report by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.