Snipe Hunting in the War Zone: A Diary of Peculiar Madness

“Was thinking of taking a trip down to Big Bend last week of Oct.-ish, first week of Nov.-ish … wondering if you’d be inclined to ride along. There it is,” read the e-mail from a fellow traveler.

Being a man of uncertain career goals, with a history of seasonal labors leavened by spells of gloriously under-planned, lightly funded shoulder-season road trips, I wasn’t particularly surprised when the cryptic invitation showed up in my inbox. Though wrapped up with a family crisis involving a body organ in catastrophic failure, I sent him a “Shit yeah, pending a couple minor complications” reply, because I’d just waded through a wave of news articles about a proposed solution to a perceived national inter-departmental problem, to wit:

A Bill

“To prohibit the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture from taking action on public lands which impede border security on such lands, and for other purposes.”

These words are the “enacting clause” of H.R.1505 (aka the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act), which then creates Department of Homeland Security autonomy for building roads and/or fences, doing vehicle patrols, setting up surveillance equipment, using aircraft and (quoting the text again), “deployment of temporary tactical infrastructure, including forward operating bases … ,” anywhere on federally administered lands “…within 100 miles of the international land borders of the United States for the activities of U.S. Customs and Border Protection…to achieve operational control…” — followed by a hit list of 36 agricultural, archaeological, environmental, recreation, Sidebarreligious, river, watershed, wilderness and wildlife protection laws the department’s honorable Secretary would rise above for five years after the enactment date (see sidebar).

“Sad want and pouertie makes men industrious,
But law must make them good, and feare obsequious.”
The queen’s argument in “Civil Wars” [1609], Samuel Daniel’s poetic history of medieval discord 

This Day — the nays weigh in …

I find myself in a National Park visitor center with a ranger in full “badge-off” frustration burn-out mode. To my “So, what’s up with this House bill to exempt the Border Patrol from Wilderness rules?” query, the ranger launches into a short legislative history spiced with outrage about “vacating the Organic Act,” ending with advice to, “Look at Google Maps,” to see how many trails the alleged horde of illegal border-crossers had cut through his beloved park. “You won’t see any, because they don’t use Big Bend much,” he said — and you’ll notice I’m not naming names, or claiming to quote the ranger verbatim, because I figure government employees and other sundry locals in “badge-off” moments have as much right as I do to voice passions, without fearing reprisal from the empire’s overlords. Besides, this particular ranger’s camping advice leads to a quiet evening of stars wheeling overhead and kangaroo rats scampering underfoot (sans border-crossers or enforcement types) a couple days later, so let’s leave him in whatever peace can be had in a war zone.

Next day, while fellow traveler and I are sipping beverages a coyote’s stone throw from the international border with Mexico as defined by a mighty little Rio Grande (aka Rio Bravo del Norte), a passing park biologist can’t think of any highly trafficked smuggling trails through the National Park either, but offers up concern over the effects off-road vehicle patrols would have on Wilderness Study Areas that are his responsibility.

As I drain my brew, I resolve to ask the next border enforcement type I meet about Homeland Security’s need to remove the Big Bend country from Interior Department control. Good plan, except we don’t meet a patrol in the three days we spend wandering along the dirt road that parallels the border for almost 100 miles. Our only official contact is with a couple of volunteers. One is in the park to manage the construction of Border Patrol housing, and in his spare time he visits inquisitive tourists and describes how difficult it is to get Americans to come build houses this far from El Paso. He notes that there is plenty of cheap labor just across the river, but … yeah, I know, I know — Border Economics 101, again.

Map of Area

The four impoverished villages immediately south of the Rio have been devastated by post-9/11 security measures in the not-so-Bravo Norte. Border crossings have been closed, and even when the Boquillas station re-opens this spring, south-side residents will have to travel to a U.S. Consulate to get the proper documents. The closest one is almost 400 miles away. Meantime, walking sticks, beaded jewelry, wire scorpions and hand-painted rocks appear on the north-side shore, with signs such as, “Please purchase to help Boquillas children go to school,” while the official Park newspaper The Paisano (complete with picture of sombrero-topped peasant in full fetal squat) warns, “Items purchased will be considered contraband and seized by officers when encountered.” Reading on in “Big Bend and the Border” I come to this statement, “each year, hundreds [emphasis added] of people travel north through the park seeking to enter the United States.” I winter in an area that claims to be the busiest sector of the entire border war zone, where each year several hundred people die of thirst trying to get to El Norte, possibly more than pass through this park’s 801,163 acres. I’m a little underwhelmed, and can feel any fears of unwanted encounters with desperate construction-work seekers dissipating along with the effects of one mid-afternoon beverage within sight of our threatened international border.

After sampling vistas from the rim of a 1,000-foot-deep canyon and an 8,000-foot peak, hiking desiccated hills topped by abandoned mines, and camping in multiple unsecured camps within sight of the Rio with no illicit tracks or security patrols obvious to my curious gaze, a few days later we retire from this fine specimen of the nation’s crown jewels for refreshment. Multiple conversations with variously lubricated denizens of a National Park gateway town to the west produce no concern with cross-border traffic, except that enforcement efforts farther west might force some drug smuggling gangs into using the Rio’s canyons to slip past tighter patrols elsewhere. As one veteran river rat sums it up, “In over 20 years of guiding on this river, I’ve had more trouble with bubbas from Midland than with any Mexicans.”

“‘Content thee, thou unskillful man,’ he said;
‘my madnesse keepes my subjects in their wits.’”
— Daniel quoting the queen quoting a tyrant in “Civil Wars”

A Different Day — the yeas have it …

After this cold bath of negative local reaction to what certainly can appear to be a one-size-fits-all border security solution imposed from the august halls of big guv’mint, due diligence has me perusing virtual reams of news-bites, congressional testimonies and official endorsements. A press release from H.R.1505 sponsor Rob Bishop (R-Utah) lists 17 organizations and one former think-tank analyst supporting the bill. A scorecard of the groups:

8 – [off-highway vehicle industry and users]
4 – [law enforcement personnel]
3 – [livestock industry]
2 – [multiple-use forest trails advocacy]
1 – [congressional staffer formerly employed by think-tank self-described as staffed by “policy entrepreneurs”]

Each news article about the bill is replete with statements from retired Border Patrol officers and worried border ranchers about the same smuggling hot-spots in southern Arizona, and I’m looking for answers about a need for vehicle patrol access to all the public lands between, in the 100-mile-wide swath along southern, northern and (in Alaska) eastern international land borders of the empire, as defined by H.R.1505.

After reading all the supportive statements and testimonies I can find, I’ve scanned the representative’s list for groups not already quoted to a media fare-thee-well, sent out queries and am picking through the fruitful replies. (Spokespeople will remain unnamed, since they already know who they are.):

Speaking for three OHV groups that use the same office address in California and “government relations office” in Virginia,  a staff member emphasizes that support “has nothing to do with increasing  OHV access” to roadless public lands, and is related to riders’ fears of smuggling gangs along existing trails. He mentions a Border Patrol officer run down on an OHV-accessible sand dune in California, and signs warning of smuggling activity in a national monument in Arizona, but is not aware of specific areas where vehicle patrol access to roadless areas will make riders feel safer.

Representing two livestock groups, another spokesperson sends a statement that supports, “preventing federal land management agencies from using environmental policies to restrict the U.S. Border Patrol from obtaining routine access.” Attached is testimony from a member living by a riparian area turned into a smuggling thoroughfare by tightened enforcement near heavily populated border zones. A promised interview with the group’s president becomes a political potato passed to an Arizona ranching group whose executive vice president reminds me that, “the border is a complicated issue.”

One multiple-use organization supports the bill so members will know it doesn’t oppose it. Their spokesman says he “opposes misinformation from the other side,” that the bill will interfere with recreation management by land agencies. He thinks my question about the bill’s application to a 100-mile-wide zone along the land borders with Mexico and Canada, “sounds kinda funny,” has “no comment” — and then asks me if I’ve checked with H.R.1505’s sponsor.

I’m on the phone with a pleasant-voiced PR person from Representative Bishop’s office, inundated in details. She recites a by now-familiar list of border-war talking points, all taking place within 100 miles of my own winter quarters. The still-unsolved murder of a rancher to the east, the gun battle death of a Border Patrol officer just south in a mountain range I roamed long before it became a war zone, trash along foot trails, a locked gate in a wildlife refuge, wilderness rules altering sensor placements and vehicle patrols, a several-hour delay in constructing a tower to wait for a herd of pronghorns to pass, land managers “extorting” (her word, not mine) habitat mitigation funds from the Homeland Security budget.

Would H.R.1505 address all this? It is meant to be comprehensive, she replies.

Does the congressman want vehicle patrols along all borders? Up to Border Patrol, but wants sensors in any areas not patrolled.

How many federally administered acres does the Representative Bishop think are affected by the laws his bill would waive? She isn’t sure, but says bill covers all land borders.

Including Alaska/Canada border? Yes.

How about tribal lands? She gets this clarification from staff that wrote H.R.1505, “While it doesn’t provide any new authority regarding tribal lands, it would facilitate access within the tribal lands.”

What does “access” mean? Intent of bill is to empower Homeland Security as defined in 2008 by then-Secretary Michael Chertoff. (I quote Chertoff’s “Determination Pursuant to Section 102 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996,” “… to waive certain laws, regulations and other legal requirements in order to ensure the expeditious construction of barriers and roads in the vicinity of the international land border of the United States.” [April 3, 2008])

Would habitat mitigation requirements, such as a current Homeland Security-financed jaguar monitoring project, be waived by the bill? She refers me to the border fence construction policies.

Why a 100-mile-wide zone along the entire border, rather than known hot spots? H.R.1505 language was “guided” by retired Border Patrol personnel, the still-pleasant PR voice tells me, and the bill is meant to address problems “… once and for all.”

I’ve already seen that the current management team at the Department of Homeland Security says they don’t want or need this blanket freedom from oversight, so don’t ask why the bill’s writers turned to retired staff for guidance.

“But well, I see which way the world will go;
And let it go — and so turns her about.”
— Daniel’s queen ends the argument to her king.

Just another Complicated Day in the War Zone — foxhole conversion, anyone?

To the west I see a tribal nation that has survived more than a thousand years of shifting borders and intermittent rule from distant centers of power. The mountain range to the east has tracks of a border-crossing jaguar, and to the southwest is a mountain-side where the oldest known wild jaguar stepped into a fatal trap two years ago. Both were likely repeat border-crossers born in Mexico. On the way to his practice across the border in Nogales, Sonora, my dentist bicycles past a canyon where a Border Patrol agent was shot with a gun supplied through a federal sting operation (begun by a Republican administration, and then continued by a Democratic one). Over the years I’ve known border country ranchers, Border Patrol officers, people who’ve traced kin to a time before written history on either side of the current line, and border-crossers bloodied by run-ins with Border Patrol and desert brush, so when a “once-and-for-all” solution to border smuggling looms on my horizon, I gotta admit a built-in bullshit sensor goes (to paraphrase me long-dead sawmill savage daddy) “fucking ape-shit.”

After dancing the PR/journalist mambo with talking heads from H.R.1505’s backers, I’m considering the complexities of these congressional testimonies:

From border rancher and veterinarian Gary V. Thrasher (supporting the bill last July), come fears over safety at his house just north of the border, outrage about ranching families left “… living in-between the border and the Forward Operating Bases of the Border Patrol,” and irritation that border wall construction in his area was delayed “… for an archaeological study and assessment after an Indian artifact was found.”

Dr. Thrasher concludes, “I beg you to immediately and aggressively take whatever steps are needed to secure our border. H.R. 1505 is an important step in that direction.”

From Tohono O’odham Chairman Ned Norris (supporting a 2008 attempt to reverse the border wall-building waiver), concern that “… fragments of human remains were observed in the tire tracks of the heavy construction equipment.”  He reminds the House committee that his tribe’s residency on both sides of the current border pre-dates the United States, says, “… our land is now cut in half, with O’odham communities, sacred sites, salt pilgrimage routes, and families divided. We did not cross the 75 miles of border within our reservation lands. The border crossed us.”

Chairman Norris wraps it this way, “We know from our own experience living on the border that security can be improved while respecting the rights of tribes and border communities, while fulfilling our duty to the environment and to our ancestors, and without granting any person the power to ignore the law.”

These two men live within a mountain range of my winter quarters, disagree on logistics of border security and deserve a chance to continue being heard. In Texas, the border wall has cut wildlife refuges and ranches in two, leaving some family homes in an unpatrolled no-man’s land between border wall and international border. From the northern border come reports of unreconstructed libertarians and flaming environmentalists actually uniting in fear of a security agency controlling their local public lands, with any semblance of due process waived.

In response, H.R.1505’s sponsor added language to prevent Homeland Security from restricting recreational use of the lands and sunset the bill’s provisions in five years — but who will then patrol the newly built roads, and how will they be secured to control motorized smuggling and recreational use in formerly roadless areas? Most of the 36 laws to be waived were enacted to prevent irreversible damage to species, habitat, cultural artifacts and religious sites; and long-time border residents south and north know that local conditions need special solutions — conditions that change over time. Barring long-term occupation-style militarization of the 100-mile-wide border enforcement zone, patrols are doomed to replay a summer-camp hazing classic, hunting unseen snipe while smugglers run contraband drugs, guns and humans through the border nights.

I greeted the year of our empire’s next political spin cycle in a border-town bar, dancing among gray-haired iconoclasts and 20-something retro-flappers and hipsters. A woman in mourning dress sat lotus-style on the bar. The band, a mix of youth and experience billed as the Border Crossers, took a break and danced with the crowd to “Burning Down the House” from the Talking Heads’ classic album “Stop Making Sense.” A couple miles away, two men were shot outside a bar on the edge of town.

After sleeping at a formerly-grand hotel supposedly patronized by border hero/villain Pancho Villa in life (and by his ghost after death), in a nearby border-town economically devastated by current Homeland Security measures and well-publicized fears real or imagined, I’m standing on a ridge of public land (my land, your land) that touches Mexico. Here the borderline is still a stock fence. Back at the parking lot, a Border Patrol camera scans east and west while an officer sits in his patrol vehicle. Fences, walls, smuggling, insecurity and incongruity, this is border country, so tracks of humans and other animals point north and south, coalescing onto a network of unauthorized trails below my vantage point.

Senior correspondent B. Frank’s last piece for MG was “Cool Cats & Dharma Bums: How to Interface with Wildland Archetypes (and Enjoy the Experience)”, which appeared in #185. He splits his time between the Border Country and the Four Corners.