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Their View: Wilderness and border security for the long term

By Paul J. Deason / For the Sun-News

Posted: 05/03/2010 09:44:22 AM MDT

Original Posting at http://www.lcsun-news.com/las_cruces-opinion/ci_15006689

I would like to thank local real estate developer Mr. John Hummer for sharing his thoughts regarding the Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks Wilderness Act currently being considered by the U.S. Senate in light of the recent cross-border security incidents in Arizona. We all agree that more needs to be done to strengthen border security. However, several of his points must be clarified so that we may move forward toward the goals of more tightly securing our border and protecting our natural lands. As a professional with a wide range of national security experience at the federal level, I have followed the wilderness debate with interest for the past 5 years. Based on this experience, it is clear to me that these goals are not mutually exclusive and that the issue of border security has been very thoughtfully addressed by Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall in the development of the Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks Wilderness Act.

Last month, we were all saddened to learn of a border rancher killed in Arizona. This tragic occurrence has sparked a more vigorous public discussion and a heightened awareness of the response and resources needed to secure our southern border. Unfortunately, some have attempted to politicize this tragedy by linking it with the designation of public lands as wilderness. However, the simple fact is that this rancher lived nowhere near a wilderness area. Rather, the solution lies in enhancing our overall border security enforcement.

The Southwest New Mexico Border Security Task Force, convened by Sen. Bingaman in 2003, has brought together border residents and law enforcement agencies at all levels to discuss concrete ways to improve border security. In implementing the Task Force recommendations, the number of Border Patrol agents working along the border in New Mexico has nearly tripled, and fences and vehicle barriers have been constructed along the entire stretch of border with Doña Ana County. According to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) statistics, the number of undocumented immigrants coming into New Mexico has dramatically decreased over the last five years. Nonetheless, everyone recognizes more work is needed.

As we look to enhance security specifically within Doña Ana County and discuss the proposal to protect the important Potrillo Mountains near the border, we should consider the facts. First, because the Potrillo Mountains are incredibly rugged and in some places more than 20 miles across, very few people try to traverse this area. Despite the fact that this area has been protected as a wilderness study area for the past 30 years, this is not a path most can endure, particularly when there are flat lands just to the east and west. Second, travelers on foot or by vehicle seeking to cross the Potrillos would still need to successfully traverse several miles of open land and cross a highway – land all patrolled and monitored by the Border Patrol.

Third, as Mr. Hummer points out, there is an existing agreement between the BLM and Border Patrol that allows law enforcement to pursue someone that has entered public federal lands, including wilderness areas. This agreement has worked very well.

Finally, Mr. Hummer is either mistaken or intentionally misleading in his depiction of the Border Patrol’s ability to patrol Highway 9. The truth is that the current West Potrillo Mountains Wilderness Study Area boundary extends all the way to the edge of the highway. If anything, the Border Patrol is more constrained from patrolling north of Highway 9 now than under the senators’ proposal. Instead, Sens. Bingaman and Udall propose to create a buffer zone of several miles between the border, Highway 9, and the proposed Potrillo Mountain Wilderness. Unlike in Arizona where some wilderness areas share a boundary with Mexico, the proposed Potrillo Mountains Wilderness would have a buffer precisely to give Border Patrol more flexibility to conduct routine patrols on both sides of highway.

Given the facts, residents of Doña Ana County should be confident that protection of critical environmental resources close to the border will not fundamentally weaken our security position. Again, in ways mentioned above the security of the area may even be enhanced. With the growth of Doña Ana County, Las Cruces and El Paso it is clear that we need to protect our pristine wilderness areas now before they are lost to land development and illegal off-road vehicle abuse. The Potrillo Mountains are one of the last great unprotected landscapes in New Mexico. They posses an incredible diversity of animal and plant life, and are prized by area sportsman, hikers, birders, horseman and more.

As we come to grips with the root causes of our border issues, we cannot lose sight of the long-lasting and permanent effect of losing our pristine natural areas to unfettered development and terrain exploitation. We can and we must achieve the dual goals of wilderness protection and border security. Both are important to protecting our future, and the values that we hold dear as New Mexicans. We should all stand shoulder to shoulder by providing historic protections for our most important public lands. From my analysis the plan is sound and will allow for improved border security through the security buffer zone created by Sens. Bingaman and Udall combined with the additional measures the delegation is pursuing with the Department of Homeland Security. We can all be proud of this legislation, and I urge everyone to say yes to wilderness in Doña Ana County.

Paul J. Deason, Ph.D, is a resident of Las Cruces and currently serves as a member of the U.S. Department of Justice Anti Terrorism Advisory Council.

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