Conservation Groups call for Halt to Road-Building in Borderlands Wilderness Area

Jan 7, 2009

OTAY MESA, CA — With little advance notice, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has begun bulldozing a road inside a federally-designated wilderness area on the U.S.-Mexico border. Apparently not wishing to attract national attention to the controversial project, DHS made the construction start-up announcement through its contractor on Christmas Eve. According to DHS, the road-building project is necessary to build a border wall within and immediately to the south of the 18,500-acre Otay Mountain Wilderness Area on the U.S.-Mexico border east of San Diego.

The rugged terrain of the wilderness area will require blasting and removal of 530,000 cubic yards of rock, and extensive grading and leveling in order to build the wall and the accompanying road, says Sukut Construction, the contractor doing the work. Plans for the project note that much of the five-mile patrol road and approximately 1,300 feet of the primary pedestrian fence would extend into the Otay Mountain Wilderness.

Because motorized equipment, new roads and permanent human structures are not permitted within a federally-designated wilderness area, the Wilderness Act was among the 36 laws waived by Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff in April 2008 in order to expedite border wall construction. The controversial waiver was authorized under the Real ID Act, which allows the Secretary to exempt DHS from any and all laws that might interfere with construction of the border wall and associated access roads.

“Wilderness areas are designated by Congress specifically to protect sensitive places from projects like this road construction,” said Carl Pope, Executive Director of the Sierra Club. “This road sets terrible precedent and clearly demonstrates the dangers of granting the Secretary of Homeland Security authority to waive any law in order to build walls along our international borders.”

The project now moves forward despite DHS documentation that “Construction of the fence, staging areas, and patrol road…will result in a barrier to movement for large non-flying animals and general loss of wildlife habitat.” According to Matt Clark, Southwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife, “Such harmful impacts to wilderness characteristics and values are clearly inconsistent with the Congressional intent of the law that established the Otay Mountain Wilderness Area in 1999. The waiver and the wall are an affront to our nation’s laws and natural heritage.”

When Congress passed the Secure Fence Act (SFA) in 2006, mandating that 670 miles of border fence be constructed by the end of 2008, San Diego Sector Border Patrol spokesman, Richard Kite, said, "…at the (Otay) mountain range, you simply don't need a fence. It's such harsh terrain it's difficult to walk, let alone drive. There's no reason to disrupt the land when the land itself is a physical barrier." Kite’s experience and reasoning, along with the language of the SFA itself, which does not require walls on slopes with more than a 10% grade (such as most of those in the project area), has apparently been ignored by DHS as it now attempts to speed up border wall construction.

“The frantic pace of wall building along the U.S.-Mexico border completely ignores the project’s serious environmental consequences to wildlife, wildlands and the general ecology of the borderlands region,” says Kim Vacariu, Western Director for the Wildlands Network, a conservation group working to protect cross-border wildlife corridors. “The waiving of the bedrock environmental laws that protect our nation’s natural resources is unconscionable. Construction in the Otay Mountain Wilderness should cease pending immediate and thorough environmental review,” he notes.

William H. Meadows, president of The Wilderness Society, agreed. “We are very concerned about the impacts this wall will cause to wilderness values at Otay,” Meadows said. “Wilderness areas are among the last places in the United States that are untrammeled by humans, and we believe they should stay that way.”

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