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Interior Sec. Zinke to vist border, Arizona wildlife refuges

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will tour the U.S.-Mexico for the first time this weekend, coming to Arizona to conduct an "on-the-ground assessment" of Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refugee, about 54 miles southwest of Tucson, and meet with local officials. 

This includes a tour with Rodolfo Karisch, the chief of the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, as well as a visit to the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, about 113 west of Tucson, according to a statement from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. 

Zinke will also host a roundtable discussion with tribal leaders to "discuss solutions to the national opioid epidemic," said a spokesman from the Interior Department. 

The visit comes as the Trump administration continues to push hard for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as billions in new border security measures, including the hiring of 5,000 additional agents. 

More than 40 percent of the U.S.-Mexico border, or about 820 linear miles, is managed by the Interior Department, and the Department of Agriculture, which includes the U.S. Forest Service. 

In Arizona, the Interior Department manages Imperial Sand Dunes, near Yuma, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and the San Pedro National Conservation Area near St. David, along with Organ Pipe and Buenos Aires. Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service controls the Coronado National Forest, which includes two areas that abut the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Over the last several years, Homeland Security officials have regularly complained that rules set by the Interior Department hurt border enforcement by requiring the agency to endure a rigorous process to install new border infrastructure, and in some cases, rules that keep agents from patrolling wildlife refuges in four-wheel drive vehicles and all-terrain vehicles. 

These complaints come despite a 2006 Memorandum of Understanding between Interior and DHS that Border Patrol agents could operate motor vehicles on existing on administrative roads, or previously designated trails, and legislation that allows the Secretary of DHS to waive environmental laws. 

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This comes just as President Donald Trump demanded in an Jan. 2017 executive order that Border Patrol gain "operational control" of the international borders of the United States, defined as "the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States, including entries by terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of terrorism, narcotics, and other contraband." 

Under the 2005 REAL ID Act, Congress used an earlier 1996 Clinton-era law to give the agency broad authority to waive legal requirements that could impede the construction of barriers and roads along the border, allowing DHS to facilitate the construction of hundreds of miles of fencing and other infrastructure.

In late July, John Kelly — now serving as White House chief of staff — waived environmental laws and other regulations to plan for the construction of new prototype walls near San Diego, beginning from the Pacific Ocean and running 15 miles east to "Border Monument 251."

Before 2017, DHS used environmental waivers only five times, all of them in a three year span from 2005 to 2008.

In 2011, an official with the Government Accountability Office told Congress that despite the 2006 agreements, in some cases it "takes a long time" for agents to "obtain permission from land managers because environmental and historic property assessments must be performed on each specific site, as well as on the road leading to the site." 

Anu K. Mittal, the director of Natural Resources and Environment at the GAO noted that a land manager in Organ Pipe wilderness denied some Border Patrol requests, including the placement of the now-defunct SBINet program, because the land manager said the agency "did not demonstrate to him that the proposed tower site was critical, as compared with the alternative, and that agents’ ability to detect undocumented aliens would be negatively affected." This meant that the tower was placed on land owned by Arizona, but that this meant the tower had a "smaller surveillance range," she said. 

However, in recent years, the agency has been successful in deploying new sensor towers as part of the revised surveillance system known as the Integrated Fixed Tower system, in remote areas of the desert, including the Tohono O'odham Nation. 

Last April, CBP announced that after it completed an environmental review of a proposal to add new towers, and construct 14 new access roads, while improving nearly 71 miles of approach roads, the agency did not need to complete additional analysis,  or an environmental impact statement. 

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Border fencing and vehicle barriers near Sasabe, Arizona just west of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge