Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Friday waived environmental regulations and laws restricting immediate construction of border fencing along Southwestern Arizona's Barry M. Goldwater Range.
The action was taken to circumvent a series of laws, from the Endangered Species Act to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
Doing so — under authority that Congress gave the Homeland Security secretary in 2005 — will clear the way for construction in Southwestern Arizona of 37 miles of physical and virtual fencing, radar and other infrastructure, lighting, all-weather and drag roads, expected to cost in the neighborhood of $64 million.
Chertoff voided "environmental requirements and other legalities that have impeded the department's ability to construct fencing and deploy detection technology on the range," spokesman Russell Knocke said in Washington.
The construction will be part of the Bush administration's overall Secure Border Initiative, which calls for adding a mix of fencing, cameras and high-tech surveillance and communications, vehicle barriers and other features to diminish and deter illegal crossings along the Mexican border.
Another 28 miles mixing ¨high-tech virtual fencing and a physical barrier was announced last year.
For several years, Arizona has been the epicenter for crossings by illegal immigrants, often led by smugglers, though the number of Border Patrol apprehensions dropped more than 11 percent last year compared with 2005.
A similar dip was reflected in known entries and apprehensions on the Goldwater Range over the same period.
With the waiver taken care of, the team planning the border initiative will begin its work on determining the precise types of fencing and technology and border infrastructure that's going to be required in the 37-mile stretch.
The 2.8 million-acre range is used by the Air Force and the Marines for bombing and aviation training.
The planned fencing will take in five miles to the west of the Goldwater Range. It will not include the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, which is immediately east of the range, Knocke said.
Robin Silver, board chair of the environmental organization Center for Biological Diversity, called Chertoff's move "a historic travesty."
"Because they refuse to deal head-on with the economics of the immigration challenge, they're now taking a step to destroy the integrity of the central part of Southern Arizona's desert," Silver added. "There's not a wall on earth that's going to stop a human in search of a minimum-wage job to feed his hungry family."
Knocke said an exception will be made to accommodate the flat-tailed horned lizard, a species previously taken off proposed listing for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Small openings will be make in fencing that is constructed to allow the lizard to continue crossing into Mexico.
Knocke said it was determined that the endangered Sonoran pronghorn "would not present any major issues."
Chertoff's waivers will be published midweek in the Federal Register, but Knocke said it's not immediately clear when construction could begin.
Authorities said there were more than 17,000 known attempts by people trying to illegally enter the country on the Goldwater Range and 9,600 apprehensions in 2005. The numbers dropped to 15,200 attempted entries and nearly 8,600 apprehensions last year.
Some of the decreases are attributable to use of National Guard troops assisting the Border Patrol as well as more agents and technology, Knocke said.
There are more than six miles of fencing currently on the range with some vehicle barriers and Defense Department communications facilities also in place.