POTRILLO MOUNTAINS WILDERNESS STUDY AREA, N.M. – 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 the 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.
Environmental groups say that wilderness areas can be designed to enhance border security. The centerpiece of their argument is this swath of desert grasslands, volcanic craters and serrated peaks 40 miles from the war zone of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., has proposed a new, 250,000-acre wilderness that would halt five miles from the border, allowing the Border Patrol to intercept smugglers and illegal migrants. Deeper in, a road would be built to allow the patrol to check the wilderness area. “We believe the result is both better protection of the community and the landscape,” said Jude McMartin, a spokeswoman for Bingaman.
The head of Customs and Border Protection, Alan Bersin, has endorsed the proposal, saying it would make what is currently a little-traveled stretch of the border even securer.
But, in a sign of how contentious the debate has become, some retired Border Patrol officials, ranchers and local business leaders oppose the deal.
In a report, Janice Kephart of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, which advocates for tighter border security, calls the proposed wilderness “a gift to the drug cartels.” She argued that if the wilderness is approved, New Mexico could see Arizona-level problems.
It’s a contention that has picked up steam locally. “It scares us to think that what happened there could be replicated in New Mexico,” said Tom Hutchinson, owner of a well-known restaurant in Las Cruces and a former head of the local Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the wilderness designation.
So far, this area looks nothing like the border battlegrounds of Arizona, where migrants have worn tracks and left trash in some of the most environmentally sensitive deserts in the nation, including Organ Pipe National Monument and Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge.
In New Mexico and west Texas, the Border Patrol reports that arrests of illegal immigrants have dropped 90 percent in the last five years, a sign of how rarely smugglers travel this land. Environmental groups note that this region was set aside as a wilderness study area three decades ago under President Ronald Reagan, with heavy restrictions on how it can be used.
“It’s been here for more than 25 years,” said Nathan Small of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. “Yet there has not been an explosion in either drug or human smuggling.”
Still, rancher Dudley Williams keeps a pistol strapped to his side while on his property here, about a dozen miles from the border.
He says he’s seen migrants hiking through the land, stopping to grab water from the tanks used by his cattle. The other night, his wife was driving home when a car full of drug smugglers sped right at her, he said, and tried to force her off the road. The Border Patrol caught them.
Williams scoffed at the idea that setting aside five miles at the border would enable Border Patrol agents to keep the area secure. “Only three roads will be allowed in here,” he said, gesturing to the horizon. “There’s miles and miles of country.”
The proposed wilderness encompasses a wide swath of southern New Mexico desert, cobbling together a number of wilderness study areas and other federal land. It would create 350 square miles of new wilderness and national conservation areas, bisected by Interstate 10. The section closest to the border is dominated by the Potrillo Mountains study area, which encompasses lumpy volcanic mountains that jut out of the desert floor just north of Mexico.
The proposal is supported by the local county commission, sporting groups and the City Council of Las Cruces, the nearest city.
Gene Wood, a retired Border Patrol agent who once ran the agency’s San Diego station, said it’d be easy for immigrants to hustle through the first five miles and melt into the desert. Once they exited the wilderness, they could reach the interstate and move out across the country.
“A good backpacker with a customary 80 pounds of drugs could get across those five miles in, I’ll say, two hours,” Wood said. “Once they’re across those five miles, they’re home free.”
Another retired Border Patrol official supports the wilderness, however. Ron Colburn was deputy chief of the agency and also oversaw wilderness-heavy parts of the Arizona border.
He said there have been problems in wilderness areas before, but also successes, and that they have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. He praised Bingaman’s approach of preserving wilderness while allowing the Border Patrol freedom to do its job.
“It’s healthy to seek a balance,” Colburn said. “Border security, while seeking preservation of pristine wild lands, can be achieved.”