Sunday, February 19, 2012

Protecting Doña Ana County's Treasures

Not long ago we attended an outdoor press conference concerning the proposed Organ Mountains - Desert Peaks Wilderness Act.

It was a splendid day, with a splendid view of the Organ Mountains. Denise Chavez read a poem about Tortugas Mountain. J. Paul Taylor charmed us with a personal history of Doña Ana County – including the fact that the Robledo Mountains were named after one of his ancestors.

As I listened to the fine words and watched the light play on the mountains, I mused that here was something all of us who love this place could support: protecting the Organs.

Motorcycling home, I wondered who, if anyone, opposed the legislation and why.

Folks who love the environment would obviously support it, and I figured that folks whose top priorities are jobs and economic development would too.

Yes, protecting the Organs can promote sustainable economic development.

Ask Tim O’Donohue, former President of the Chamber of Commerce in Jackson, Wyoming, how he feels about Yellowstone. According to one study, just the re-introduction of wolves there has generated an additional $25 million per year for the area!

Or ask the folks in Socorro if they’re glad to have the millions of dollars spent by visitors to the Bosque del Apache.

I spoke with two economists who’ve studied the issue and even made a "case study" of our county.

Extensive studies have shown that designating wilderness areas tends to help the surrounding economy. How much depends on the context. A wilderness next to Las Vegas or Seattle won’t be the area’s major draw. In Reserve or Cuchillo, remote from airports, hospitals, and other urban amenities, a wilderness area won’t draw many retirees or cause a company to relocate its software engineers there.

The effect is most pronounced in a place like ours: high "quality of life" but easy access to hospitals, Fed-Ex and UPS, and an international airport. Much of the recent growth in our economy has been service-related: health care, professional and technical services, and food services. All three are positive for drawing retirees, tourists, and/or environmentally friendly business. All three would in turn be helped by what the economists call "new permanent and branded protection" of wilderness areas.

Opponents of this legislation deny that protecting lands helps local economic development. One cited testimony by Brian Steed, a former deputy county attorney in southern Utah with a Ph.D. in public policy, that his research "found that Wilderness had a statistically significant negative relationship with county economic conditions." However, peer-reviewed scientific studies show a positive effect. I’ll add to the blog a link to Mr. Steed’s testimony, too; but if you have a hard time following it, you’re in good company. Economist, Ray Rasker (cited in Steed’s testimony) said of Steed’s group, "their statistical model made no sense at all" and called some of their conclusions "nonsense."

A few groups and individuals oppose the Act. Their main stated ground is border security. They argue that the legislation would hamstring the Border Patrol and endanger border security. (Extremists even say there should be no protected lands within a hundred miles of the border. That would wipe out part of the Gila Wilderness – and, if read broadly, even White Sands National Monument.)

Their basic argument, as a Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce representative put it, is that any impediment to the border patrol’s freedom is too much.

As in a family or community, the Border Patrol and federal land managers need to work together. Officials from both have testified that they do. Their working relationship isn’t perfect, but they try hard to harmonize different important priorities. A year-long review by the U.S. General Accounting Office interviewed Border Patrol agents-in-charge throughout the Southwest, who reported that despite some problems, "the border security status of their jurisdictions has been unaffected by land management laws." The GAO also found that both sides are working to improve inter-agency cooperation.

The current version of the Organ Mountains - Desert Peak legislation represents significant compromise and improves the Border Patrol’s flexibility.

While agents have been limited to a 1/3 mile strip between the border and the "Wilderness Study Area" in the Potrillos, that’ll become a five-mile strip [three-mile buffer plus two-mile "Restricted Use Area" which, though otherwise closed to motorized traffic, would permit the Border Patrol to patrol and construct outposts.) There will be an East-West road for the Border Patrol to use. The legislation also states that nothing in the wilderness designation would affect Border Patrol overflights and other security activities in the area.

In 2010, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin, in a letter strongly supporting the legislation, said it would "significantly enhance" the Border Patrol’s flexibility in the area. Bersin said cooperation between the bill’s proponents and the Border Patrol "should be a model" for future consideration of other wilderness areas along the border. Ron Colburn, a third-generation Border Patrol officer who retired a couple of years ago, has called it "a constructive piece of legislation that would work to protect our international border with Mexico and protect our nationally valuable wilderness resources."

In one recent fiscal year the border patrol apprehended a grand total of thirteen people in the area around the Potrillos. Opponents say that designating it as a Wilderness will bring drug smugglers and illegal border-crossers streaming to the area. Proponents note that the area has been a Wilderness Study Area for nearly three decades. (Colburn questions how strongly that history can be used to predict the future, but said the real issue was the tough terrain there. "It’s really tough terrain, they could be out there for hours to days, which raises the possibility they can be intercepted by law enforcement, assuming enforcement has the capability to detect them.)

It’s hard not to wonder whether border security is the real issue or just seemed like the best way to attack legislation that would protect our scenic treasures and boost our economy.


[The foregoing column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 19 February.
In it, I undertook to add links to certain material:

The Economic Importance of National Monuments to Local Communities is a report by Headwaters Economics.
At that same URL, there's a link to the "case study" on Doña Ana County, Doña Ana County’s Public Lands and Economic Prosperity .
You can read an opposing view at Brian Steed Testimony.  It's testimony he gave to a Congressional Committee.  An opponent of the proposed Organ Mountain legislation referred me to it.  Mr. Steed didn't return my phone call, so I didn't get to speak to him directly.
Anyone interested in the issues discussed in the column should read those three documents, as well as the GAO Report  "Southwest Border - More Timely Border Patrol Access and Training Could Improve Security Operations and Natural Resource Protectionon Federal Lands."
Folks particularly interested in the border security issue might also watch part of the C-Span video U.S. Border Enforcement and Environmental Laws. (Unfortunately, it's three hours long.)  I started watching because Part II, which included testimony from a Las Cruces resident and former Border Patrol officer.   The hearings were held by U.S. Congressmen who hold a particular view, very different from mine, and they chose their witnesses to make their points.  Officials from the U.S. Border Patrol, Department of the Interior, Department of Agricultural, and GAO testified unanimously that (contrary to what those running the hearing contend) environmental laws pose, as one Congressman pur it, "a relatively low burde4rn that has been successfully managed by inter-agency cooperation."  However, all involved also agree that there are serious problems on the border. 
I'd note that Rep. Silvestre Reyes, who represents El Paso, testifies at approximatley 20:00 of Part I, and Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM), questions Reyes at  45:18.  Reyes was a border patrol officer himself for more than a quarter-century.  At 55:30 U.S. Border Patrol Deputy Chief Ronald Vitiello starts his testimony, followed by Kim Thorsen from the U.S. Interior Department and Jay Jensen from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Noteworthy in Part II are the poor manners of the two Utah Congressmen questioning witnesses they don't like and the strong views expressed by two retired border patrol officers and a rancher.  To his credit, Representative Pearce, who also disagrees with the witnesses, didn't shout and interrupt the way the two Utah Congressmen did.)]
     Researching this column was interesting.   I'm no expert either on economic development or border security.   I heard some very disparate views expressed, sometimes with great passion.  I read some contradictory interpretations of the same facts. 

     Above, I've added in links to some of the evidence I looked at, so that interested readers could conveniently look further into this, rather than relying on me.  I also have a few further comments that wouldn't fit in the space I had for the column.

     Talking to Ben Alexander and Ray Rasker from Headwaters Economics was extremely helpful.   At a later date I hope to follow up in another column or blog.    I've provided links to their web-site above.

      Ron Colburn was a particularly interesting fellow to talk with.  He finally called me back, just after I'd sent the column in.  (I made a few small changes as a result of that conversation.)  He added some much-needed balance between the extreme statements I'd heard.

       He's not an environmentalist -- or "cactus-hugger," as they're called in Arizona.  He's third-generation Border Patrol.   Which isn't technically true, because his grandfather was patrolling the Mexican Border on horseback in Pancho Villa's time, before there was a border patrol as such.  His son is fourth-generation Border Patrol.  Mr. Colburn was Deputy Chief during the Bush Administration.

         He's a lawman.  He's dedicated to and highly experienced in border security.   Talking to him, I felt he was shooting pretty straight, calling 'em as he sees 'em.  He neither supports nor opposes the propsed legislation, but doesn't believe it'll present the kind of impediment to border security that opponents are screaming that it will.

         He also confirmed my instinct about the GAO report: that it was comprehensive and mostly fair, but might be shaded a little toward the views of the Congressman who requested it.  The GAO responds to Congressional inquiries.  Mr. Colburn said he takes the results with a small grain of salt.  "I think the GAO will try to provide a pleasing report to the specific congressperson who tasked them with whatever the question is -- and that's nonpartisan."   In this particular case, I believe the report was requested by Congressman Bishop (R-Utah), whom I saw screaming at witnesses from the Border Patrol and other federal hearings who testified in hearings that the Memorandum of Agreement between the Border Patrol and the Department of the Interior was working pretty well, and that they were trying to improve their working relationship. 

         The report definitely contains ammunition each side can use: it reports "delays" at times in the Border Patrol doing what it wants to do, but that those delays, in the opinion of Border Patrol border station agents-in-charge, haven't had an significant impact on border security.    The key thing the Border Patrol wants -- the ability to follow law-breakers when in hot pursuit (or "exigent circumstances") the Border Patrol has.

          Mr. Colburn, who helped draft the MOA, put it succinctly: "Is it perfect?  No, it's not perfect.  Could it sue improvement?  All sides would say it could.  But it's the best we have."

           Meanwhile, I'm also trying to talk to current Border Patrol officials in this area.  My request to that effect is being passed up the chain of command, and I'll hope to have a chance to talk with someone there."  Evidence such as the GAO study, the conversation with Mr. Colburn, the Congressional testimony, and secondhand information about "on-the-ground" officers' views all tend to suggest that this legislation isn't a threat to operations.   That's what leaders have said.  However, some retired officers have claimed, and testified in hearings, that active Border Patrol officers aren't telling the truth because they're scared to lose their jobs.  One testified to Congressman Bishop's committee that "Department of Homeland Security and Border Patrol are intentionally misrepresenting the situation along the southern border, particularly as regards safety." 

           Could be true -- but sounded a little like a conspiracy theory to me; and isn't very complimentary to the agencies or officials he was talking about.

           The bottom line appears to be that there are serious problems along the border, but that environmental laws do not pose a major hurdle to dealing with those problems.  That's what the Border Patrol says -- under oath, in the committee hearings cited above. 

           I also asked U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce's office whether he supported or opposed the proposed legislation.  He stated: "I believe that the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and the other sensitive areas need to be protected.  The question is how best to do that.  In the 110th Congress, I sponsored a bill to do just that.  As Hispanic leaders wrote in a recent letter to public officials, the 'protection of the enfironmentally, culturally, and historically rich landscapes' in our state is a great imperative.  That is why I have worked for more than a year soliciting comments and suggestions from various local groups and active individuals for a balanced solution that protects our land and the rights of private property owners.   I will continue working with local communities to further the best interests of New Mexico including protecting the beauty of our state."

In e-mailed follow-up questions I asked his Press Secretary, Jamie Dickerson:

Q.  "Does Rep. Pearce support the legislation, oppose it, or oppose it pending specific revisions or improvements that he would like to see in it?"

A. "Congressman Pearce does not support the legislation."

Q. "If he opposes that legislation, I'd be interested in knowing why, with some specificity."

A. "Many of the new areas designated as wilderness in the bill do not fit the definition of wilderness in the 1964 Act.  The definition of wilderness in the 1964 Act states:
'A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.'
Cherry-stemming roads and water towers out of an area does not make it 'untrammeled by man.'"

The full definition of Wilderness in the 1964 Act is:
A wilderness, in contrast where those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrtrammeled by man, where man himself is a visoitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is furtehr defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land reainting its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural condtiions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.]

Q.      "Does he agree or disagree with the view that wilderness protection or similar formal designation of lands often increases sustainable development and tourism?"

A.   "A study by economists at Utah State University and Southern Utah University calls into question this notion. The study showed that counties with wilderness areas have an average household income $1,446 lower than in non-wilderness counties."
Q.      "Does he agree or disagree with the statement by the (now-former, I believe) head of the border patrol that the legislation, under consideration would improve the flexibility of the Border Patrol and was developed into its current form from a very positive exchange between Senators, community, and Border Patrol?"

A.  "Wilderness designations limit access. Shutting off areas near the border to wheeled vehicle access is simply not good policy. According to a letter from the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers opposing Sen. Bingaman’s bill, “even the smallest impediment to unencumbered access of enforcement assets is unacceptable.” In the Organ Pipe National Monument, Park Rangers carry assault rifles and chase drug smugglers.  According to a 2003 article on the Organ Pipe Monument in National Geographic, “On any given night, rangers estimate, up to 1,000 people are inside the park. Nearly all of them have entered illegally across the park's 31-mile (50-kilometer) southern boundary, which also happens to be the dividing line between two nations.” This is without the restrictive access provisions of wilderness designation."

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