While legislators in Washington debate immigration reform, some environmental groups in Southern Arizona are concerned that an increase of Border Patrol means bad news for the environment.

Sierra Club Borderlands, which runs a Tucson office, warned that adding 20, 000 agents, as the Senate legislation calls for, along with hundreds of miles of more fencing and hardware, could irrevocably harm Southern Arizona's fragile deserts and distinctive wildlife.

Unrestricted by environmental laws along the international line, the Border Patrol has cut through the deserts with heavy SUVs, caused partial flooding by erecting fences, blocked natural wildlife migration and scattered nocturnal animals because of bright stadium lighting, said Dan Millis, spokesman for Sierra Club Borderlands. Adding more Border Patrol agents will further degrade the border desert, Millis added.

"This goes far beyond what has been considered in the past. It is one thing when you have 10,000 agents. When it is double, it's something entirely different," Millis said. "We are talking about having 38,500 Border Patrol agents. It's an agency that has grown too fast, and I fear that it is going to bust."

Defenders of Wildlife and local groups such as the Sky Island Alliance have joined the Sierra Club in their complaints against a proposed beefed-up Border Patrol.

Brent Cagen, spokes-man for the Border Patrol Tucson Sector countered that the environment is a top priority for the agency. It goes so far as to have commanders thoroughly assess assignments so as to not harm the borderlands. Their meticulousness includes giving horses special feeds, the use of helicopters instead of SUVs whenever possible and proactive measures like training officers on how to be sensitive to the environment.

About 80 percent of the lands it patrols are public lands - lands that suffer abuse by criminal smugglers who create makeshift roads that divert natural watercourses and rob native plants of the moisture needed to survive, Cagen said.

"In addition, the trash and human waste left behind by illegal crossers have a negative impact on wildlife, vegetation and water quality," Cagen said. "Consequently, CBP (Customs and Border Protection) believes that its efforts to reduce smuggling activity on public lands results in a notable improvement to the environment in those areas, which then increases the public's ability to enjoy it for recreation."

But U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, whose District 3 includes the Mexican border between Nogales and Yuma, said he agrees with environmentalists that the increase of Border Patrol has affected the environment.

"Do we dam up the San Pedro River, the only viable and flowing water artery in the southern part of Arizona in order to be able to fence it? Do we then cut off all habitat ability in terms of connecting corridors, the travel of wildlife?" Grijalva asked.

"I think the environmental part is a huge component of it, particularly here in Southern Arizona where it is being used as a precedent to how eventually suspend all these laws further and further into the interior of this country. It's excessive."

The Tucson Democrat added that during the current immigration debate there has been no talk on humane ways to prevent the deaths of border crossers or of creating a system that takes into account individual complaints of possible abuses by Border Patrol officers.

Contact reporter Joseph Treviño at jtrevino@azstarnet or 807-8029.