Bush Administration Waives Environmental Laws to Build Border Fence on Goldwater Range

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Decision Overrides Local Manager’s Decision to Build Vehicle Barrier

(01/17/2007) - Washington, DC -- The Bush administration has decided to ignore the harmful impacts on wildlife, including the endangered Sonoran pronghorn, and waive all environmental and historic preservation laws to build a controversial double-layered fence along Arizona's Barry M. Goldwater Range. The decision abuses the 2005 "REAL ID" law and paves the way for severe and unnecessary environmental damage, according to Defenders of Wildlife.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff's waiver overrides a previous DHS decision authorizing the construction of "vehicle barriers" on the Goldwater Range. Unlike double-layered fences, vehicle barriers block illegal traffic while still allowing for wildlife movement; barriers also cost far less than fencing. DHS approved construction of the barriers after an open public-comment process, and its decision was supported by conservation organizations.

"No one disputes the need to address border security, but the secretary's arbitrary decision to override every environmental law on the books to build a fence along a remote section of the U.S. – Mexico border is simply appalling," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife. "Secretary Chertoff's decision abruptly overrides, for no apparent reason, his own department's sensible decision to build a vehicle barrier instead of a fence. This appears to be a case of Washington, D.C. officials overriding local experts and on-the-ground personnel. The secretary's use of the waiver establishes a terrible precedent, and the fence itself will be devastating to the wildlife and habitat in the Goldwater Range."

This is the first time this section of the REAL ID law has been used outside of San Diego. The invoked provision allows the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to exempt the agency from all federal, state and local laws when constructing walls, fences, roads and other barriers along U.S. borders. The waiver provision allows DHS to exempt itself from vital protections under the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, National Historic Preservation Act and other laws that every other federal agency must obey. Congressional sponsors and supporters of the provision claimed in debate that the provision would only apply to a small section of border fence in San Diego.

The Goldwater Range, home to both the U.S. Marine Corps and the Air Force, had already completed the normal review process to build a vehicle barrier to prevent border-crossers from interrupting training operations. Vehicle barriers are preferred over the massive double-layered fence and high-speed roads called for in the recently passed "Secure Fence Act" because they allow wildlife to migrate and don't cause as much environmental harm.

The Goldwater Range is part of a complex of millions of acres of federal lands including the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The area represents the largest remaining contiguous block of Sonoran desert habitat left in the United States and shelters numerous endangered species, including the Sonoran pronghorn, the fastest land animal in North America. With a vehicle barrier completed at Organ Pipe Cactus, and with the new fence planned at the Goldwater Range, border traffic will invariably be funneled directly into the sensitive Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, with devastating impacts on the Sonoran pronghorn and other species.

"Now that the elections are over, Congress should take a second look at their approach to border security," stated Schlickeisen. "No one thinks a 700-mile border fence is a good idea. The Congressional Research Service recently estimated that the cost of the fence is upwards of $50 billion. On top of that, it will destroy wildlife populations and wide open spaces that Americans treasure. It is time for a sensible approach to securing our border, not political rhetoric."

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Contact(s):

Deborah Bagocius, (202) 772-0239

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