Note from the Writer:

Between the summer of my freshman and sophomore year, I worked at CPNWR for about four months, and I can attest to the environmental degradation of CPNWR’s wilderness. People know that the Refuge is designated as wilderness, and yet it is not being treated like wilderness. Border Patrol’s presence in the area is inescapable; it is not uncommon to see, while driving along El Camino Del Diablo (the Refuge’s main public road), deep tire tracks extending off-road for hundreds of yards in all directions. Fresh track marks often expose lighter topsoil compared to the dark reddish-brown sand covering the desert floor. I have also seen several instances of tire tracks cutting right through patches of the desert’s cryptobiotic crust, a complex network of algae, cyanobacteria, and fungi, which help the desert retain its moisture. CPNWR is one of the most scenic and picturesque Refuge’s in the United States, but it is unfortunate to see that it is being environmentally degraded by feckless U.S. Border Patrol policies.

Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge (CPNWR), located in Pima County, Arizona, is the third largest Wildlife Refuge in the contiguous United States, covering over 800,000 acres of a vast Sonoran Desert landscape. Nicknamed “The Green Desert,” the Sonoran Desert is the most biodiverse desert in the world and is home to at least 60 species of mammals, more than 350 bird species, 20 amphibians, 100 reptiles, and over 2,000 species of plants. In 1990, the Arizona Desert Wilderness Act designated more than 90 percent of CPNWR as Wilderness. Wilderness is described by the Wilderness Act of 1964 as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Wilderness is the highest level of land protection in the United States. In any federally designated wilderness area, there should not be any signs of permanent human activity or settlement. This includes the prohibition of all motorized vehicles within the protected area. Today, CPNWR’s wilderness has shown greater signs of environmental degradation, and many, including myself, believe that Border Patrol’s feckless actions are partly to blame. 

It is hard to imagine how such a remote place like CPNWR can experience extensive environmental degradation, especially when so few humans live in and around the area. The main cause for its decay can be attributed to changes in human immigration patterns. Before the Clinton administration, most immigration occurred through large cities such as El Paso and Nogales. Then, the Clinton administration began cracking down on urban immigration by fortifying ports of entry. In response, migrants began crossing through the desert because unlike the cities, it was not as fortified. Soon, waves of migrants began crossing through CPNWR and Border Patrol agents began to routinely patrol the area, operating mostly out of their vehicles. 

Wilderness laws expressly prohibit the use of any motorized vehicles in wilderness. However, the CPNWR contains three public roads which run through the wilderness; Border Patrol and members of the public can use these routes as they travel through the Refuge, though members of the public are not allowed to take their vehicles more than 50 feet off the road. Doing so would result in a wilderness violation. There are certain clauses in the Arizona Desert Wilderness Act that exempt federal agencies like Border Patrol from wilderness regulations, allowing them to take their vehicles off-road in cases of emergency. By invoking these clauses, Border Patrol has been able to make a significant number of wilderness incursions, which has harmed CPNWR’s wilderness at an alarming rate.

Moreover, Border Patrol has also established a network of private roads, which the public is not allowed to use. Border Patrol calls these roads “tactical infrastructure” routes. These routes are created by Border Patrol because they help agents catch and apprehend smugglers and migrants. But this growing network of roads is anticipated to have large impacts on an already fragile desert ecosystem. 

Tactical infrastructure networks are constructed in such a way that, when it rains, precipitation runoff has the potential to be trapped in deep rivets straddling the roadside. Since the rain is unable to collect near the vegetation and plants, growth is impacted and the amount of vegetation in the area is significantly reduced. CPNWR gets around three inches of rain on the western part of the refuge and up to nine inches on the eastern side of the refuge. By contrast, New York City gets around fifty inches of rain per year. With less runoff collecting near vegetation, much of the desert stays barren. This directly affects endangered species like the Sonoran Pronghorn, which rely on rich vegetation for their survival. 

In 2002, there were around 21 Sonoran Pronghorn left in Arizona. While their numbers have bounced back thanks to a tenacious restoration effort both from CPNWR and Arizona Game and Fish Department, the creation of Border Patrol roads makes it more difficult for the pronghorn to find areas of rich vegetation. As a palliative, CPNWR has developed several “forage enhancement plots” to supply pronghorn and other animals with rich vegetation. The plots are watered by artificially maintained wells. But the larger problem still persists; namely, that road construction by Border Patrol alters the way precipitation collects, contributing to a decrease in the amount of vegetation in the area. We ought to have greater accountability for Border Patrol to ensure that all of its “tactical infrastructure” road-making, and their off-road wilderness incursions are, in fact, warranted, given that these incursions have a detrimental impact on the environment. 

However, holding Border Patrol accountable for their incursions proves especially difficult given the agency’s superior legal enforcement powers over US Fish and Wild Service and other land management agencies. In 2005, Congress introduced the Real ID Act at the height of the war on terror. This gave a loophole for the Department of Homeland Security and Border Patrol to act unilaterally on many border protection projects. Without needing to consult land management agencies, the DHS could now bypass several environmental laws like the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Water Act. By introducing the Real ID Act, congress greatly bolstered the power of Border Patrol, allowing it to circumvent environmental protection laws for the purpose of national security. 

The unchecked power given to Border Patrol by the Real ID Act, aggravated many parties in land management. In 2006, land management representatives convened with Border Patrol to create a memorandum of understanding, asking for restrictions on Border Patrol’s wilderness incursions. According to the agreement, Border Patrol agents still have the authority to enter wilderness areas, but only when they judge that there is a “specific emergency involving human life, health, safety of persons within the area, or posing a threat to national security.” In other words, there has to be a legitimate reason for entering wilderness in a vehicle; one cannot just drive in at their own leisure.

Between 2015 and 2018, there were more than 7,000 wilderness-incursion reports filed for CPNWR and Organ Pipe National Monument (just east of CPNWR). Much of the data is so vague that it proves difficult to gauge whether such incursions are necessary. Explanations for entering wilderness include some flavor of “law-enforcement activity;” “working traffic;” “working a group;” and “patrol the border.” The lack of clarity and transparency in many of these incursion reports raises doubts about whether or not Border Patrol is entering wilderness in cases of real emergencies. Considering that Border Patrol’s incursions are tangibly harming the environment, we must ensure that they take place only in cases of absolute necessity. We should start by consulting experts in land management for their opinions about what constitutes an emergency. Land management representatives understand the impacts that Border Patrol is having on the environment and should play a larger role in determining which scenarios Border Patrol should be allowed to commit an incursion. While land management representatives do not have the knowledge and expertise of military personnel, they recognize the large environmental impacts that Border Patrol’s incursions have on wilderness. Their viewpoint is vital to understanding the cost-benefit analysis of any wilderness incursion.