Photograph of a BLM law enforcement officer examining a trash site.
A BLM law enforcement officer examining an illegal dumping site.  (BLM)

Border Coordination Becomes a Major Emphasis in the 1980s

By Kathy Pedrick, Eddie Guerrero, and Greg Thomsen

Who would have guessed back in the 1980s that three young employees—an archaeologist, a wildlife biologist, and an outdoor recreation planner—would become border specialists for the BLM?  Each of our southwestern BLM states that shares a border with Mexico has a dedicated border coordinator to share information and resolve issues with other coordinators, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and other partner agencies, tribes, and landowners.

The BLM manages 155 miles of the nearly 500 miles of the border in California, Arizona, and New Mexico.  Additionally, 8.8 million acres of public lands within 100 miles of the border, including 3 national monuments, 4 national conservation areas, 20 wilderness areas, 2 wilderness study areas, and 5 national recreation or historic trails, are affected by border issues. 

By the late 1990s, the entry of illegal immigrants and drug smugglers from Mexico was having adverse effects on the health and safety of the public lands.  Impacts were initially near major ports of entry, such as San Diego, Yuma, and El Paso, and were considered a wildlands-urban interface problem.

As these ports of entry were sealed off and controlled, illegal immigration, along with drug smuggling, moved to more isolated areas.  More and more, BLM lands were being affected as smugglers either drove or led people across large expanses of southwestern deserts, often in temperatures exceeding 120 degrees Fahrenheit. 

As law enforcement patrols increased, cross-border violators began off-road travel, impacting wilderness values, riparian habitat, and other back-country resources.  These travelers left more than tracks.  Millions of pounds of trash and waste, and damaged roads, structures, and fences were left in their wake.  In Arizona alone, between 2003 and 2009, more than 2.2 million pounds of trash were collected.

In 2002, the BLM in Arizona formed an interagency group to address common concerns of resource and infrastructure damage.  This group, known as the Borderland Management Task Force (BMTF), proved so successful in working to combat these issues in the Tucson sector, that the efforts were replicated in all Border Patrol sectors in the nation.

Congressional funding was appropriated for agencies in Arizona to begin dealing with the tons of trash and damage to lands.  When the appropriation expired, the BLM continued to fund partnership efforts for cleanup and restoration.  California and New Mexico also received some targeted funding for land health and safety.

While land management agencies battled to stay ahead of the impacts, other federal agencies were stopping border crossings by illegal immigrants and smugglers.  The Real ID Act of 2005 was passed, requiring the DHS to build and manage tactical infrastructure along the United States–Mexico border.  This included the construction of a physical fence to provide both pedestrian and vehicle barriers along most of the 2,000-mile border from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.

Work on these barriers generated concern among land managers along the border.  The fence fragmented crucial habitat and construction caused scarring and erosion.  Meanwhile, off-road patrol and pursuit operations by the Border Patrol and other law enforcement created additional challenges.

In 2006, the DHS and the Department of the Interior (DOI), along with the Department of Agriculture (for the Forest Service), signed a memorandum of understanding to improve communication and collaboration among the Border Patrol, DOI agencies, and Forest Service units along the border.  The DHS committed up to $50 million for projects to mitigate impacts of the border fence to threatened and endangered species.  The BLM has worked with partner agencies to identify key species and projects in each of the three BLM “border states” and Texas.

The BLM in Arizona developed an aggressive border strategy focusing on three goals:  public and employee safety, resource protection, and communication and collaboration with law enforcement agencies.  Once border conditions normalize, a fourth goal, binational coordination, will become increasingly important.

While public safety and resource damage issues continue, much had been accomplished.  The BLM has increased its law enforcement presence, cleaned up literally tons of trash, rehabilitated off-road vehicle damage, implemented public and employee safety measures, and developed an effective relationship with the Border Patrol.  The BLM continues to work proactively with neighboring landowners, tribes, and other agencies.  The border coordinators, those former young field specialists, continue to work in partnership toward a safe and secure border while protecting the resources and values that are core to our agency.

Kathy Pedrick is currently a special assistant to the BLM state director in Arizona and the Arizona borderland coordinator for the BLM.  Kathy is also the Arizona strategies coordinator and the project manager for the Restoration Design Energy Project. 

Ed Guerrero is currently the New Mexico international border advisor for the Las Cruces District of the BLM.  Eddie is also the district liaison for military activities.

Greg Thomsen is a special projects manager in the California Desert District and is the California borderlands coordinator for the BLM.