Kinder Morgan has applied to build a new natural gas pipeline just west of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge boundary - a decision that is pitting county, state and federal officials in a dispute over where it should go.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided this week the pipeline can't cut through the refuge, which forces the company to pursue a route just west of the refuge boundary, through previously undisturbed state trust lands.
Congressman Raúl Grijalva supports that decision, saying the refuge southwest of Tucson should be protected.
But Pima County leaders, environmentalists, ranchers and the Border Patrol all say that's a mistake.
They want the pipeline to run though the refuge - even the Wildlife Service's own biologists think that's the best plan - because it would be close to a highway, Arizona 286, where the disruption to wildlife and a border smuggling route already exist.
Cutting a new road for the pipeline would damage pristine desert lands and double the work for law enforcement officers, said County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.
The $204 million Sierrita Pipeline Project calls for 59 miles of 36-inch pipe to deliver natural gas to power plants in Mexico from existing pipes in Tucson. Construction is scheduled for next year.
Huckelberry has derided the Wildlife Service position as a not-in-my-backyard approach to the problem of where to put the pipeline.
At stake for the county is the investment of millions of dollars in land purchases and leases to advance the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, he said.
"The Western Route is the absolute worst choice for all parties concerned," Huckelberry said in a letter to the Wildlife Service.
In a letter to Grijalva, Huckelberry accused the Wildlife Service of "inexcusably ignoring" larger regional impacts.
Huckelberry is asking the agency to reconsider, and to ask for new lands to be added to the refuge as compensation for adding a pipeline to the highway.
Grijalva said he's willing to listen.
Refuge manager Sally Gall issued a statement Tuesday that the pipeline won't be authorized in the refuge.
"Unfortunately it results in the western route, which we don't want either," she said in an interview Thursday.
Gall's report says the pipeline corridor will be used for illegal activity and will destroy wildlife habitat and damage natural and cultural resources.
She acknowledges all those same consequences will apply to the western corridor and still could harm the refuge.
It's a "very difficult situation," she said. "I know there's a lot of pushback to get it along the highway."
If the pipeline were to be built that way, she said, there would be the roadway, then 100 feet of undisturbed land, then 100 to 150 feet of cleared land for the pipeline.
That vegetation will be hard to restore once it's cleared, she said, although the company has a detailed restoration plan.
The refuge shouldn't give up that land along the highway and that's why Gall ruled out a potential land swap, she said.
During project studies, the Wildlife Service's Arizona Ecological Services Office and the Arizona Game and Fish Department recommended the route closest to the highway.
"Of the two alignments proposed, we feel that the eastern route, that essentially co-locates this pipeline with Highway 286, is the least damaging alternative," the biologists' report concluded.
The Altar Valley Conservation Alliance and Santa Margarita Ranch also oppose the western route.
In its application, the company says it "believes it has addressed a majority of these landowner concerns."
But an attorney for the alliance and the ranch said the company has not satisfactorily addressed their concerns, and the groups have asked for hearings.
Additionally, Border Patrol officials have expressed concerns about the project, leading Grijalva to write to the secretary of Homeland Security: "The construction of a pipeline along either proposed route will very likely create a corridor for illegal activity and complicate Customs and Border Patrol attempts to keep this country and its citizens safe."
After meeting with Border Patrol officials, the company said it "drafted a plan, intended to prevent the right-of-way from becoming a road which potentially can be used by illegal traffickers."
"It is not anticipated that Sierrita's Project will increase the existing illegal-trafficking issue in the Altar Valley," the company said.
Ultimately, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission must approve the project. The agency's process takes 12-18 months and is governed by five commissioners appointed by the president.
The public may submit comments on Kinder Morgan's application online at ferc.gov in the eFile section or by mail to Office of the Secretary, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, 888 First St. NE, Washington, DC 20426. All comments should refer to docket number CP13-73-000.
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Pipeline's effect on wildlife
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bought the Buenos Aires Ranch in 1985 as as part of a plan to protect the endangered masked bobwhite quail.
The Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge now includes 117,464 acres.
The quail are "unlikely to be directly impacted" by the pipeline project, according to a report from the Wildlife Service's Arizona Ecological Services Office.
The project could harm habitat for frogs, snakes, owls and jaguars.
"The construction of a pipeline along either proposed route will very likely create a corridor for illegal activity and complicate Customs and Border Patrol attempts to keep this country and its citizens safe."
Rep. Raúl Grijalva, in a letter to the secretary of homeland security
Contact reporter Becky Pallack at email@example.com or 573-4346. On Twitter @BeckyPallack.