The landscape of saguaros, mesquite trees and prickly pear cactus here has a new feature–steel railroad rails welded into crisscrosses and connected by flat rails.
This rusting structure is a vehicle barrier designed to stop drug and people smugglers who barrel across the desert in trucks. The barriers are common at the international line–there are more than 139 miles of them along Arizona’s stretch of U.S.-Mexico border.
But this isn’t the border.
This 1.3-mile stretch of “Normandy-style” vehicle barriers was recently erected 70 miles north of the border on the Bureau of Land Management’s Sonoran Desert Monument, just south of Interstate 8 and southwest of Casa Grande.
It is likely the first time border barriers have been used this far north, and the latest example of how managing public lands along the U.S.-Mexico border is now as much about dealing with trash and trails left behind by illegal border crossers as it is about monitoring endangered animals or watering holes.
BLM officials put up the barrier to redirect traffic around the federally protected Table Top Wilderness Area, where cars are prohibited. They know it won’t stop drugs from reaching cities across the United States, but they couldn’t sit back and watch the beautiful landscape get trampled.
Skinny, knee-high signs proclaim Table Top as protected wilderness.
“The public might respect our little signs, but they are not an issue for the smugglers,” said Damian Hayes, a BLM law enforcement ranger who patrols the area.
The barrier is on the southern boundary of Table Top, which borders the northern edge of the Tohono O’odham Nation. Smugglers have carved a grid of illegal roads through the wilderness area as they cross the O’odham land and cut through Table Top on their way toward Phoenix, inflicting serious damage to the habitat.
The problem isn’t unique to the Table Top Wilderness. From Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Southwestern Arizona to Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge southwest of Tucson to the multiple patches of Coronado National Forest across Arizona’s border, land managers grapple with a multitude of issues related to being the busiest stretch of border for illegal immigration and drug smuggling. Including the Tohono O’odham Nation, nearly 86 percent of the Arizona-Mexico borderlands are federal or tribal lands.
Federal law enforcement officers at the six border public lands visited by GAO officials this year said they spend 75 to 97 percent of their time responding to threats from illegal cross-border activity, the report found. At Organ Pipe, drug smugglers regularly use the visitor center parking lot as a staging area, says a Border Patrol threat assessment in the GAO report.
Keeping up with all the trash left behind keeps the BLM’s Kathy Pedrick busy. Since 2002, the BLM has run an organized a trash-pickup program called the Southern Arizona Project. In fiscal 2009, the project picked up 234 tons of trash.
“They’ll leave backpacks, food, whatever they want to jettison before a vehicle takes them,” said Pedrick, special assistant to the BLM state director and chairperson of the Borderland Management Task Force, a group of officials from federal agencies that meets every two months to discuss border issues.
The estimated 2,000 tons of trash left behind by smugglers and illegal immigrants has harmed the fragile Sonoran Desert, landing Buenos Aires, Organ Pipe and Cabeza Prieta on lists of most imperiled federal lands at different points this decade.