Overstressed AZ Border Refuge Invites in Off-Road Vehicles

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Overstressed AZ Border Refuge Invites in Off-Road Vehicles

No Field Damage Monitoring as Refuge Fired Volunteers for Expressing Concerns

Tucson — A volatile, fragile national wildlife refuge on the US-Mexico border has thrown open its doors to motorized recreation, according to an official announcement today.  The sudden move portends major visitor safety risks as well as profound ecological damage in the Sonoran desert wilderness, contends Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, between Ajo and Yuma, Arizona, is ground zero for U.S. operations combating illegal immigration and drug trafficking.  Despite the fact that 90% of the 860,000 acre refuge is designated wilderness, it is extensively patrolled by federal agents, most all of them in motorized vehicles.  The new refuge policy allows off-road vehicle (ORV) traffic only on designated roads but the refuge has no means to enforce this limitation.

“Encouraging off-road recreation in one of the most sensitive and dangerous places in the country is reckless and foolish,” stated PEER Southwest Director and Ecologist Daniel Patterson.  “The refuge manager clearly does not fully grasp the safety and environmental issues in the Sonoran Desert border region.”   Besides visitor safety concerns, PEER points to big environmental problems, including –

  • Recently, the refuge stopped doing damage impact surveys because it fired the volunteers who, for the past eight years, had hiked the rugged refuge to inventory scarring from off-road vehicles (ORVs) going overland;
  • The refuge manager, Sid Slone (formerly of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management), fired the refuge volunteers this February for expressing concerns about allowing ORVs onto Cabeza Prieta.  After he received a Freedom of Information Act request, he also forbade certain individuals he believed were behind the FOIA from coming into the refuge office beyond the public information desk; and
  • The refuge already has 8,000 documented miles of off-road tracks, mainly from border patrols leaving refuge roadways, according to previous surveys, although there may be as many as 24,000 miles of illegal trails cutting through the refuge.

“Purging valuable, experienced volunteers because they voiced concern for damage to refuge lands and wildlife is just plain bad management and is counterproductive to meeting the refuge conservation mission,” Patterson added, noting that without the ORV damage surveys, the refuge will have little ability to assess the impacts of its new policy.  “The refuge is not staffed to enforce requirements that off-roaders keep their vehicles on the roads and do not take off cross-country, harming security and habitat.”

A 2007 PEER survey of federal rangers in the Southwest reflected a broad consensus that ORVs are already by far the top law enforcement problem in the region.

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