THREE POINTS - Rancher Walter Lane points to a boulder-filled gully, 8 feet deep, jutting north from a dirt road through the Altar Valley.
Will a new natural gas pipeline from Tucson to Mexico through this valley cause more erosion?
Ranchers such as Lane say it will. But Kinder Morgan Energy Partners says it's committed to preventing erosion and to restoring the land once its Sierrita pipeline is constructed.
The company's detailed revegetation-restoration plan will be discussed Tuesday at a public meeting at Casino del Sol. The event is being held by Federal Energy Regulatory Commission staff members, who are working on an environmental impact statement for the 59-mile-long project.
One reason for opponents' concern is that they say a section of Kinder Morgan pipeline built in 2007 along Interstate 10 east of Tucson is now barren - "a huge scar," says Linda Mayro, a Pima County official, despite what county officials say was extensive restoration.
The company says it can't confirm that the 2007 route is barren. But it has worked closely with local officials on past pipeline projects here to keep them in harmony with the environment, the company says.
One example occurred in 2008, when another company that Kinder has since acquired was lauded by University of Arizona officials for its work on Tumamoc Hill in Tucson, Kinder Morgan says. El Paso Natural Gas worked with the University of Arizona to preserve natural land on the hill as part of federally required gas pipeline inspection and maintenance work.
For its Sierrita line, Kinder Morgan has also produced federally required plans for erosion control, weed control and vegetation monitoring.
But opposition to this pipeline is intense among ranchers, environmentalists and Pima County officials, who describe the Altar Valley as one of Southern Arizona's least- fragmented landscapes.
Their prime concern is that the pipeline will be a magnet for illegal immigrants and Border Patrol vehicles pursuing them through the valley.
Lane and six other ranchers, including one at a guest ranch, are its only residents now, in an area covering 200 square miles of palo verde-saguaro habitat and grasslands from Three Points to Mexico.
"Most ranching families have been here generations. We're working to keep this open space and productive landscape," Lane said.
Human intrusion along the pipeline route will aggravate erosion, opponents say, by trampling whatever the company replants.
"It is certain this erosion will occur," said Mayro, director of the county's sustainability office. "There's 200 washes out there, and every time the line crosses one of these, you're interrupting the flow.
"Because there's no cover on a newly bladed pipeline, the soils are going to erode" when storms come through, she said.
There's no way to permanently restore the land without controlling access to the pipeline route, said Jenny Neeley, who is with the environmentalist Sky Island Alliance.
Adds Linwood Smith, a Tucson ecological consultant who has worked on other pipeline projects: "People on the pipeline route, depending on the intensity of use, can completely scotch any reclamation efforts. I don't know how you could prevent it there."
Kinder Morgan spokesman Richard Wheatley replies: "We are committed to public safety, protection of the environment and operation of our facilities in compliance with all applicable rules and regulations. Our goal is to work openly and cooperatively with all stakeholders regarding environmental, health and safety issues."
The company has reached out to residents and other affected parties and will keep doing that, and pipeline plans continue to be reviewed at all levels of government, Wheatley said.
An initial draft of a border-security plan for the project is under review by the U.S. Border Patrol and Department of Homeland Security, Wheatley says.
The federal Customs and Border Protection, an agency that includes the Border Patrol, adds that while this pipeline could potentially affect its Altar Valley operations, "CBP has the ability to adjust operations to maintain our current level of security there should the pipeline project go through."
Last year, the head of the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector wrote the energy commission, asking that the pipeline be moved due to concerns it will draw immigrants and smugglers. Now, Border Patrol spokesman Andy Adame says, "We will adapt to any impacts created by the pipeline's construction."
The 2007 Kinder Morgan project along I-10 had planted seedlings where the pipeline crossed Cienega Creek, recalls Kerry Baldwin, the county's natural resource manager. The company did invasive-species control and installed barriers to keep out ATVs, Baldwin says.
In Kinder Morgan's words, it "worked cooperatively with Pima County officials to address county concerns and develop a comprehensive mitigation agreement and buffelgrass-eradication program, which was carried out in cooperation with the University of Arizona."
But while the company did what was required, the restoration work didn't take hold, Baldwin said, adding, "Pipelines are extremely hard to restore in a desert ecosystem."
The company's current restoration plan is more comprehensive than the 2007 plan, but it still has gaps, Baldwin says.
On StarNet: Read more about the pros and cons of Kinder Morgan's Tumamoc Hill pipeline work on reporter Tony Davis' blog at azstarnet.com/news/blogs/desertblog
Follow Davis as he blogs live from the meeting Tuesday, 9 a.m., at live.azstarnet.com
AT A GLANCE
Kinder Morgan's Sierrita pipeline restoration plan:
• Replacing topsoil and installing permanent erosion controls 25 days after pipeline construction.
• Installing erosion-control devices to slow the flow of subsurface water along the pipeline trench.
• Digging seedbeds 3 to 4 inches deep.
• Requiring inspections during construction and restoration, with authority to stop activities violating environmental conditions.
• Monitoring through annual inspections for five years.
If you go
• Public meeting on Kinder Morgan's proposed natural gas pipeline that would run from Tucson to Sasabe.
• 9 a.m. Tuesday.
• Casino del Sol Conference Room, 5655 W. Valencia Road.
Contact reporter Tony Davis at email@example.com or 806-7746.