Desert Invasion - U.S.


Ghost highways - Arizona desert scarred by illegal immigration traffic

By Kathleen Ingley, The Arizona Republic, May 15, 2005


Here is where every member of Congress who hesitates on immigration reform should come. They should stand on high ground and see desert without end.

Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge is almost unimaginably vast and isolated: one-third larger than Rhode Island with a population of zero.

It was put under federal protection in 1939, a place where an intrepid backpacker could hike for days without seeing a trace of humans. Bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, pronghorn and all the other shy and wonderful creatures of the desert found a tranquil haven here.

Until the illegal roads came.

Six years ago, rangers began noticing tire tracks slashing across the virgin desert. Coyotes, facing heavy enforcement in more urban areas, were trying a new route for smuggling undocumented immigrants.

A few tracks multiplied into a dozen. A hundred.

The tracks turned into roads. When one spot got impassable, drivers tore through the desert alongside or struck out in another direction.

More than 90 percent of Cabeza Prieta is officially designated wilderness, where vehicles are banned....

But here they are, more than 200 miles of illegal roads forming a phantom highway system. They snake north to connect with the road network beyond the refuge in the Barry M. Goldwater Range.

Now narcotics peddlers have joined the crowd. In 2004, almost 20,000 pounds of drugs were seized in or next to Cabeza Prieta.

Abandoned vehicles litter the landscape. To shade themselves from the sun, people clear out vegetation under trees, killing the slow-growing baby plants that were sheltered there. Foot traffic has skyrocketed, with smugglers brazenly taking groups as large as 100 people. They leave behind a trail of trash, an estimated 8 pounds per person.

This isn't a wildlife refuge. It's a landscape under assault.

While Congress and the administration dither, illegal immigration is inflicting deep and often irreversible damage on our most pristine places.

Yes, we need more muscle at the border itself: agents, air support, technology. Not just the current temporary effort, but long-term support. Barriers to keep vehicles from crossing the border, already going up at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, should be extended to all vulnerable public lands....

Skeptical members of Congress should take a drive down El Camino del Diablo.

The Devil's Road, one of just two public roads in the 1,300 square miles of Cabeza Prieta, runs roughly parallel with the Mexican border.

The name is apt. This is a hellish place to travel, with virtually no water, thickets of heavily thorned plants and temperatures that can top 100 degrees for three months straight.

It's a testament to the powerful lure of jobs in the United States that anyone would think of crossing through Cabeza Prieta.

The refuge is a classic Sonoran Desert basin-and-range landscape, with seven chains of jagged peaks rising abruptly from the flatlands. The name, Cabeza Prieta or "Black Head," refers to a white granite peak with a lava top.

Yet immigration pressures are so strong here and the place is so inaccessible that the Border Patrol has constructed a station along El Camino del Diablo. It's meticulously positioned to stay within the right of way along the road, which isn't part of the wilderness area. Crews live here, rotating in for seven-day shifts.

Environmentalists have long complained that the Border Patrol is part of the problem, carelessly tearing up the landscape in pursuit of UDAs (the widely used abbreviation for the official term, "undocumented aliens").

But Roger Di Rosa, manager of Cabeza Prieta, says the Border Patrol has become more environmentally aware. Agents now learn about the restrictions of operating in a wilderness area, including no motorized equipment and no mechanized transportation....

But some members of Congress are still doubters. They should join Curt McCasland in a walk across the Growler Valley.

The refuge's assistant manager spends a lot of time monitoring and recording the impact of illegal immigration and smuggling.

"It's like recording the death of a system," he says. "It can be really depressing."

The last time McCasland checked the Growler Valley, he counted a road every eighth of a mile. After a rainstorm, each one acts like a little dike and canal, diverting the normal flow of water. Cheated of moisture, McCasland fears, much of the valley's native plant cover will eventually disappear. The roads not only change water flows, they also bring in aggressive species of plants that don't belong in the Sonoran Desert. Vehicles carry the seeds on their tires and churn up soil so new plants can take root....

But many of the invasive species grow luxuriant foliage and then dry out, creating a tinderbox just waiting for a spark. Undocumented immigrants [illegal aliens] supply it when they light fires to cook or signal for help. (The 5-acre fire was, in fact, lit by a stranded family.)...

Those hesitant members of Congress should see the wildlife at Cabeza Prieta....

To help increase their numbers, about two-thirds of the refuge is closed to visitors during fawning season, as are significant areas of the adjoining federal land.

But the closures are almost meaningless when the drug and immigrant traffic just keeps rolling through. In 2003, Cabeza Prieta set up a square-mile enclosure with an electrified fence as a protective spot during fawning season. But smugglers and immigrants, thinking that the barrier went on for miles, dug under it, tried to go over it and shorted out the electricity....

McCasland won't wear his U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uniform when he is out doing research, in case he bumps into drug traffickers and needs to pass himself off as a tourist. He doesn't go alone and needs a law enforcement escort for night work.

At neighboring Organ Pipe monument, smugglers are spraying graffiti on boulders and cactuses. They set up a shrine to Jesus Malverde, folk saint of the narcotics trade, with a metal bust of the dapper mustachioed man and votive candles. Rangers lugged it out, along with a fraction of the surrounding garbage.

Mr. President, members of Congress, are you listening? You have the power to take control of immigration policy. You need to act now or there won't be much left to protect at Cabeza Prieta and our other borderlands.

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