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Trump's Interior secretary in Arizona: 'Clearly, we're going to build a wall'

"Clearly, we're going to build a wall," Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in Arizona during his first tour along the U.S.-Mexico border, but he said he will listen to experts to "mitigate" the effects of border barriers.

The Trump administration official finished the first leg of his "on-the-ground assessment" of federal lands by horseback on Saturday, riding with Border Patrol agents and officials from U.S. Fish and Wildlife along the border with Mexico near Sasabe, Ariz. 

Clad in a cowboy hat, boots, and a green Border Patrol jacket, Zinke made sure to look the part, joining with the chief of Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, Rodolfo Karisch, and refuge manager Bill Radke to tour along the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, one of four areas managed by the Interior Department along Arizona's southern border. 

Zinke said that as secretary of Interior and as a "former Navy SEAL" it was important to get "outside of Washington, outside of politics" and come to the "front line, and meet the people who were there every day, putting their lives on the line, in defense of the border." 

Zinke said while he would talk to experts in the field, and try to mitigate the effects border barriers might have on wildlife and natural resources, "Clearly, we're going to build a wall."

"Clearly, border protection is mine and the president's priority," Zinke said. "Clearly we are in support of the wall," he said. Zinke said that he would talk to land managers, other citizens and representatives to alter designs and add technology, but that portions of the border would see new walls, and in some places "two walls." 

"Although we have the property, [Homeland Security officials] have the lead in making sure that our border is secure," Zinke said. "We also want to make sure that wildlife and preservation are restored." 

Zinke said that the design of a wall or fence has to "consider environmental effects," but was unclear about how the agency would balance the need for national security against environmental concerns. "Mostly, what I saw out there for environmental damage is though the unconstrained illegal traffic; the trash left behind," Zinke said. 

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While a wall doesn't "fix everything," he admitted, a wall "fixes a class of problems." 

"Can it be climbed over? Absolutely, even by an aging SEAL like myself," Zinke said. "We certainly need a wall; we also need as the president said, a nice door," Zinke said. 

"But you also need technology, also we need to make sure we can enforce the interior. As a nation, we have to look at a policy that's sustainable," he said. "We have to take the situation and consider it, and talk to the experts." 

Zinke noted that about 40 percent of the entire U.S.-Mexico border, or about 820 linear miles, is managed by his department, or the Department of Agriculture, which includes the U.S. Forest Service.  

In the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, this is even more apparent.

Around 80 percent of the Tucson Sector's 262-mile border with Mexico runs along public lands managed by the Interior Department. 

This includes Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, about 113 miles west of Tucson, as well as Imperial Sand Dunes, near Yuma, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and the San Pedro National Conservation Area near St. David, along with Buenos Aires. 

This also includes the Tohono O'odham Nation, which is managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a part of the Interior Department. 

'Over my dead body'

There Zinke might face some of the biggest opposition to the construction of new border barriers. In an interview last year, Verlon Jones, vice chairman for the tribe, described the sentiments of some community members: "Over my dead body will a wall be built," he said. 

"I don’t wish to die but I do wish to work together with people so we can truly protect the homeland of this place they call the United States of America. Not only for our people but for the American people," Jones said. 

Similarly, environmental groups like the Sierra Club, and the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, have offered their own fierce opposition to the plan to build a wall. The local group sued the Trump administration in federal court, and though they recently lost in federal court, they are already seeking to appeal, a move that may tie up the wall for years. 

"Zinke’s Arizona dog and pony show doesn’t change the fact that border walls are disasters for communities and wildlife," said Randy Serraglio, an advocate for CBD.

"Public lands, people and animals are being sacrificed for Trump’s nativist campaign promise. Zinke is pandering and preening for cameras in a place he knows nothing about, while resistance to this destructive border wall grows stronger every day," Serraglio said. 

Zinke said that he would speak with Tohono O'odham officials as part of his tour. 

"Our Native Americans have a strong opposition to the fence, and I'm going to talk to them about that, and go back to Washington D.C. and talk to the president," Zinke said, noting that a cabinet meeting was scheduled Wednesday. 

"The president listens, he's actually been a delightful boss, he doesn't micromanage me, a lot and when he has a question, believe me he calls, but he's been very willing to sit down and listen. He's a builder, he gets it," Zinke said.

"I'm confident that he'll review it and accept it," Zinke said. 

"That's why I have the experts, that's why I'm here," he said, pointing to Radke, the refuge manager for Buenos Aires, who spoke for just a moment. 

"This was a wonderful example to see how national security missions and conservation missions can really mesh and come together," said Radke. "These are not mutually exclusive missions," he said. 

Karisch was mostly quiet during the press conference, but said that he wanted to show the Interior secretary the "challenges that the agency faces" along the border, thanking Zinke, "a celebrity," for coming to Arizona.

"Interior is a very old department," Zinke said, noting that he was looking at ways to reorganize the department, and make sure that bureaus in the department work more efficiently and less arbitrarily. "This is exactly why the president signed his executive order to look at the government across the board" and "to make sure it reflects the citizens of the United States in a better way." 

"We love immigration, the country is made of immigrants, so we have to have a policy that's fair, that's sustainable over the course of time," he said. 

Zinke then shifted to "a few shootings" that had happened on public lands—including the fatal shooting of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in 2010— and argued that the agency needs to create "a safe working environment" for agents against "really, really bad people out there." 

"We're American, having a secure America is important. Immigration is a part of American DNA—with the exception of the Native Americans, who emigrated here from some time, some place in their history—it's part of American DNA," Zinke said. "So, we need a system that works well for everybody, reward people for doing it right, have a system that allows people to do it right." 

"When you get outside of Washington, and most people are willing to work together," Zinke said. "Outside of Washington, most people are reasonable, inside the beltway, well unfortunately, not to much," he said. 

With the bollard fence behind him, Karisch later told TucsonSentinel.com that the border fence "people think the wall has an enormous footprint, but it's not and if you look at the traffic that we've prevented from coming into this area, it's a big difference from the 2000s," Karisch noted. 

All told, apprehensions have declined all across the border, including in Tucson Sector,  which went from more than 616,000 in fiscal year of 2000 to around 39,000 in fiscal year 2017, with nearly one-third hailing from Central America. 

"Walls work, they make sense," Karisch said. However, when asked about the "balloon-effect," or the shifting of people and drugs from one area to another as the agency focuses its efforts, Karisch said, "We've got to look at border security across 2,000 miles, we can't simply be in one area, because at the end of the day, it's not only immigration that we're having to contend with, we've still got a war on terror, it's about securing the homeland. That's what's important, a wall is just simply another piece that helps the border security side. It's not going to solve every problem,  but if you can imagine years ago, just volumes of people streaming across here, they're not here anymore." 

Fences, access roads, technology have all come together that "adds to the safety of the homeland," Karisch. "We don't control the budget, and that's something we'll have to deal with, but at the end of the day, this does work." 

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. 

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. 

This comes just as 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. 

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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. 

At the end of the press conference, a reporter asked Zinke about his use of the Japanese greeting "konnichiwa," following comments by U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa who asked the Interior secretary if a program that grants funding to sites that mark the internment of nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II would be continued.

"Will we see it funded again in 2018?" asked Hanabusa, whose grandfathers were among forced into camps by U.S. officials in California, Washington, and Arizona.

"Oh, konnichiwa," Zinke replied. 

"How could ever saying 'good morning' be bad?" Zinke said. "Konnichiwa means 'good morning' by the way," he said as a press secretary interrupted, and ended the meeting with reporters.

"It's just amazing," Zinke said at the last moment before heading to a car. 

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

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on horseback during a tour of the U.S.-Mexico border near Sasabe, Arizona.

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