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SIerra Club & Border Patrol tout 'conservation and collaboration on the border'

They've clashed in the past over conflicting goals - border security and protecting the environment - but representatives of the Sierra Club and Customs and Border Protection recently made their first joint public presentation about working together.

The environmental group and federal security agency discussed the impacts of border enforcement on wildlife and the challenges of securing the U.S.-Mexico line without disrupting fragile habitats.

Audience members came from Naco, Hereford, Tucson, Phoenix and Flagstaff to hear presentations in Sierra Vista, and take a tour of the nearby border led by CBP Intergovernmental Public Liaison Agent Charles Trost and Dan Millis, program coordinator for the Sierra Club Borderlands, Grand Canyon Chapter.

"For me this is truly special and important day," Millis said. "We've worked together before but we haven't come together to address the public before and I think it's a really important message that we have and the message is all about conservation and collaboration on the border."

Millis used before and after photos to highlight unique features of the conservation areas along the border, including San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, San Pedro Riparian Conservation Area and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and how they've been affected since 2005. That year, the Bush administration waived 37 environmental protection laws for the construction of the border wall and support infrastructure — roads, lights and surveillance towers — along the U.S.-Mexico border.

"These walls have caused problems for wildlife in terms of blocking migrations, fragmenting the habitat of wildlife," Millis said. "Obviously this is problematic if animals can't migrate that might  possibly threaten their ability to survive, their ability to find mates, water, food, escape bad weather, etc."

A 2007 photo from the San Pedro conservation area, the tour's destination, showed natural landscapes around a river flowing unhindered towards a barbed-wire fence; a 2014 photo of the same area showed the fence, Roosevelt Easement roads and lights installed in the interim.

"In addition to hastily built walls that ignore all the environmental laws and block wildlife, they also have caused floods — walls built across flash-flood zones like this one don't tend to stand up to that type of stress," Millis said. "This kind of flooding has caused a lot of damage in border communities."

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And when walls collapsed under the weight of the water they led to even bigger flash floods including collapses and floods in Nogales in 2008 and Organ Pipe in 2011.

Communicating with other department and local groups has been leading to solutions like the floodgates now added to the fence between Naco and the San Pedro River, Trost said.

Trost said the turning point was a 2006 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that encouraged federal departments with goals like security and conservation to work better together, including cross-training events and joint projects. It also encouraged building relationships with organizations and individuals that shared these goals so that they could partner for better outcomes.

"We've come a long way as the Border Patrol, learning that being protectors of the country also means being stewards of the environment," Trost said. "And we've been really fortunate with the leadership across the board between Border Patrol, Department of Interior and Department of Agriculture to be able to communicate maintain and build our relationships and now it's starting to show where people are recognizing the work that we're doing."

That work includes over 200 miles of restoration work on "wildcat" roads made by vehicles that went off-road in Organ Pipe National Monument, where the delicate cryptobiotic soils can take centuries to heal after being stepped on or driven over.

While still in progress, the restoration work has already been nationally recognized with the 2015 group/team Wes Henry's Excellence in Wilderness Stewardship award.

"The best part is the work that we've been doing out here for the past 10 years has led to things like this," Trost said.

Another successful collaboration is happening on the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge where coordination between land mangers, BP agents and park rangers has greatly reduced all kinds of traffic coming across the border.

"It's very compact, a great place to kind of pilot good collaborative programs on the border," Millis said. "The traffic has been much lower than in previous years so it's been better for the environment and better for security."

The event ended by the San Pedro River as the sun set behind the Huachuca Mountains.

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Saundra King, who recently moved from Phoenix to Hereford, sat listening to the pulsing insects song and gazing south at the moon which appeared to be rising on the Sonoran side of the border fence.

King said she and her husband are concerned about politicians passing bills that "allow them to come in carte blanche and do things" and they appreciated the information from the presentation, especially the call to action to be aware of future bills that may affect the area.

"We will make sure we're on top of what's going on," King said.

King said she and her husband aren't members of Sierra Club — yet.

"But we're gonna be."

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Garret Schwartz/TucsonSentinel.com

A hawk perches on the U.S.-Mexico border fence between San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area and Naco, Ariz.