Editor's note: This story first appeared Sunday as an exclusive for our print readers.
TABLE TOP WILDERNESS AREA - 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 recently completed barrier has already diverted vehicle smuggling around the wilderness area, and BLM crews have begun restoring the lands damaged by the roads, Hayes said.
"It's been amazing that it's done exactly what it was intended to do," said Hayes, who has patrolled the area for four years. "It's hard to gauge exactly where they are going, but they are definitely not using the wilderness area."
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.
Dealing with border issues is nothing new - Arizona has been the route of choice for a decade. But the national attention about how federal public-land managers deal with the cross-border traffic and work with federal law enforcement agencies has amplified in the past year with two high-profile killings in which suspects may have passed through federal lands.
BLM officials put up signs south of I-8 in the Table Top Wilderness Area warning visitors that the area was an active human- and drug-smuggling corridor and that they may encounter "armed criminals and smuggling vehicles." The signs became political fodder in the 2010 election and became a symbol to some that the United States had ceded territory to smugglers.
When BLM officials took them down and replaced them in October with toned-down notices, they were criticized for trying to make it seem that the problem had gone away. The irony - similar signs have been up for years across Southern Arizona.
The agency is considering putting up more vehicle barriers in Ironwood Forest Monument just northwest of Tucson. There are already vehicle barriers or fences up along the international border in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge and the Coronado National Forest.
Materials to build vehicle barriers are plentiful - hundreds of miles of old barriers were uprooted in the past three years to make way for Department of Homeland Security border fences and walls. Some of that excess supply went into the Table Top barriers, which cost the BLM about $66,000 each, said spokesman Dennis Godfrey.
Threat to employees
"The United States and Mexico border is 1,969 miles long," says a woman narrating over vaguely Mexican-sounding music and video of cactus and mesquite at the border. "It is a land that is both beautiful and fragile with a rich diversity of plants and animals.
"The management and protection of many of these areas has been entrusted to federal and state agencies," she says, as logos of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the BLM and the National Park Service, among others, flash on the screen.
"The employees working for these agencies not only have to protect the land and serve the public, but also have to deal with a unique situation: a tremendous amount of drug smuggling and illegal immigration in a harsh desert environment. These illegal activities pose a very real threat to employees."
This video - titled "Working along the United States-Mexico border" - is shown to federal employees and volunteers to make them aware of the situation and how to protect themselves.
Though illegal crossings have dipped along with the economy in recent years, federal lands in Arizona continue to be high-risk areas for illegal immigration and drug smuggling, says a November report from the Government Accountability Office.
The number of apprehensions by the Border Patrol on federal lands has not kept up with the number of estimated illegal entries there, the report found. Border Patrol agents made more than 91,000 apprehensions on federal lands in the Tucson Sector in fiscal 2009, but the agency estimated there were nearly three times as many illegal entries on these lands, the report said.
There's no way around it - working or volunteering on public lands near Arizona's border carries a level of risk.
At Organ Pipe, where ranger Kris Eggle was fatally shot in 2002 by a drug smuggler, about half the 330,000-acre park is closed to the public. That's an improvement over 2007, when the park was 97 percent closed, but still nothing like the 1980s, when park staffers planned their work around the seasons - not law enforcement schedules.
The monument is divided into three zones: red zones where staffers can go only with security escorts; blue zones where staffers must go with at least one other person and call hourly to check in; and white zones that are open to the public and where the staff can work freely.
When staffers need to work in the red zones and none of the monument's 20 law enforcement officers is available, Organ Pipe Superintendent Lee Baiza has to contract security officers to escort them.
"It adds to the cost of doing business," Baiza said.
And it prevents or delays the staff from getting regular land-management work done. The Quitobaquito natural spring, about 100 yards north of border on the monument, is prime habitat for the endangered pupfish. Monument staffers sometimes have to travel 18 miles from the visitor center to make sure water levels there are adequate.
But since the spring is in the monument's red zone, staffers can't go alone without being accompanied by law enforcement officers. Staffers have to inform officers days ahead of such trips, too, so the officers can patrol the area one or two days before to make sure it's safe.
Monument officials outline these security concerns in recruitment material sent out to college students considering participating in field work at the monument, Baiza said. For some, it's not a big deal; for others, it's a deal-breaker.
"It's not just anybody that comes," Baiza said.
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.
There is even a website devoted to the trash (www.azbordertrash. gov). The site, run by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, is designed to coordinate cleanups and track results.
Under more pressure
While the strain of dealing with illegal cross-border activity is nothing new, the pressure on border land managers has escalated in the last year, led by a Republican lawmaker from Utah.
A month after Robert Krentz was killed on his Cochise County ranch, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop introduced a bill that would give Border Patrol agents total access to public lands, where they now must adhere to some restrictions. He justified the legislation based on authorities' belief that the person who killed Krentz fled into Mexico through the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, 17 miles east of Douglas.
Bishop was the ranking member of the House Natural Resources subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands. He was recently named chairman.
In June, Bishop's office sent a press release saying the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge had just days earlier announced the closure of 3,500 acres to the public due to dangers posed by Mexican drug smugglers. The press release missed a key fact: This section of the Buenos Aires Refuge has been closed since October 2006.
The erroneous report prompted several national media outlets to report a 4-year-old story as if it were new. The office of Buenos Aires refuge manager Sally Gall was flooded with inquiries, forcing the refuge to issue a press release to clarify things. The increased pressure from Bishop and others and the spreading of inaccuracies has given border public lands in Arizona a bad image, Gall said.
"Yes, there probably is increased drug traffic and the drug issue is definitely a concern, but I just think it's created a lot more fear in people than what was needed," Gall said. "It portrayed this area as really dangerous and that people should fear coming here."
In fact, illegal immigration has slowed so much through the refuge that Gall and the refuge staff will consider reopening the closed section later this year, after National Guard troops stationed there leave, she said. The estimated number of illegal crossings has dropped to about 100 per day, compared with more than 1,000 a day just a few years ago, she said.
Since last fall the GAO has been evaluating the relationship between federal land managers and federal law enforcement, issuing two reports in the past four months about an improving but flawed relationship.
The first report concluded that federal rules governing public lands along the border cause some delays but do not prevent the Border Patrol from handling its assignment to secure the border.
The Dec. 14 fatal shooting of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry near Peck Canyon northwest of Nogales added fuel to the fire, too, since it apparently occurred within the Coronado National Forest. The exact location of the shooting has not been made public by the FBI or the Border Patrol.
Bishop sent out a statement the day after, lamenting the murder: "It's no secret why criminal organizations entering the U.S. from Mexico strategically target federal lands as the most ideal and secure route to traffic drugs, smuggle humans and carry out a host of other criminal acts. Strict environmental regulations are enabling a culture of unprecedented lawlessness that has led to numerous deaths on federal lands, including yesterday's tragic death of agent Terry."
All the increased attention on the border creates an opportunity for federal officials in Arizona to educate people across the country about the reality on the ground, Pedrick said.
"The fact that people are aware and recognizing the problem," Pedrick said, "can help solve the problem."
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or email@example.com
On StarNet: Find extensive coverage of border and immigration issues at azstarnet.com/border