David and Edith Lowell live in a beautiful house with a long porch in a place called Peck Canyon. The home is tucked into rock hills that form the divide between the Atascosa and Tumacacori mountains.
But the Lowells share their paradise, located about 12 miles north of the border and 3 miles west of Interstate 19, with dangerous smugglers.
One day four years ago, the couple hosted a meeting of neighbors. As they talked, Edith glanced out a living room window and saw burreros--drug mules--walking past, each carrying a backpack stuffed with contraband. It most likely was marijuana, although it could've been cocaine, meth or heroin--or even, say, a nasty chemical agent.
Midday, broad daylight, and there were the bad guys--Edith counted 26 of them--trooping past, about 100 feet away. Most interesting, and ironic, was the topic of the meeting. The neighbors had gathered to talk about the effort by environmentalists--then an idea, now a bill introduced last August by Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva--to create a new wilderness area on Coronado National Forest land between Tucson and Nogales. It would be called the Tumacacori Highlands Wilderness.
Those present at that meeting operate ranches on the impacted property and know intimately the joys and troubles of their land, the latter dating from territorial times and the cross-border Apache raids that left their ancestors sleepless and afraid, to the whiskey-smuggling wars of Prohibition in the early 20th century.
The border has planted the expectation of trouble in their DNA. But the wariness--approaching fear--they feel today, amid the explosion of cross-border drug- and people-smuggling, is almost as profound. It's a big reason why, almost uniformly, they oppose the wilderness, believing the restrictions it will impose on the Border Patrol will expose them to even greater danger.
Proponents scoff at that, noting that the legislation acknowledges the importance of continued law enforcement in the area. They say, as does Mike Quigley, wilderness campaign coordinator for the Sky Island Alliance, the bill's major backer, that they wouldn't be pushing this "if we thought it threatened anyone's safety."
But a wilderness, by definition of the 1964 Wilderness Act, means certain things--closing, with some exceptions, permanent and temporary roads, banning motor vehicles or other mechanized equipment, and banning permanent structures. The Border Patrol now has free use of roads in the Highlands, as well as helicopter access, and it has in place electronic sensors, video surveillance and more--all of which is incompatible with wilderness. What happens if they have to remove it? What happens if road use is limited, choppers banned?
The area is already a dreamscape for smugglers, and some of their trails end right in the Lowells' yard. "We couldn't live here if not for the Border Patrol," says Edith, adding that smugglers have become more visible and aggressive in the years since that meeting.
In one instance, as she drove away from the house at 7 a.m. to make a golf date, she found her progress stopped by a black sedan parked across her mile-long driveway. Two men were loading drugs into the back. Edith, who is 80, parked behind them and waited with her heart pounding until they finished and cleared a path for her to go on.
Others at the meeting that day live with similar troubles. So when those modern renegades strolled past the Lowells' window, the room erupted in grim laughter. "There it is!" someone shouted. "There's the problem we're talking about!"
The episode framed beautifully the question the Lowells and others ask: At a time of war, with the border under such pressure--with some residents living under virtual siege, at times falling asleep listening to the rat-rat-rat of automatic weapons--shouldn't the first priority of lawmakers be the safety of American citizens on American soil?
Wilderness opponents say the plan has potentially profound implications for the country, too. They charge that it will create a ready-made pathway into the United States, a straight shot for drug smugglers and illegal aliens beginning at the Mexican border and running north about 30 miles, even beyond Tubac.
"It'll be a highway for all sorts of illegal activity. The drug runners and coyotes will love this wilderness," says Arivaca-area rancher Jim Chilton, who stands to see some of his land included in the wilderness. "We're dramatically impacted by illegal traffic now, and I believe if you have more eyes on the ground, rather than shutting people out, the land is less likely to be a safe haven for illegal activity right on the border."
He contends that "highway" will be open to "sworn enemies of America from the Middle East" as well. In fact, Chilton suspects they might already be crossing his land, based on the discovery three years ago of six Yemeni passports in a discarded backpack.
If that sounds far-fetched, consider that FBI Director Robert Mueller told a House subcommittee in March 2006 that his agency had broken up a Hezbollah-organized smuggling ring that had brought operatives across the Mexican border. And National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell sounded a similar warning in an interview with the El Paso Times last August.
Critics say the problems presented by the bill are compounded by a second Grijalva bill, HR 2593, which has the stated purpose of conserving public lands and natural resources on our border. But a close reading suggests the congressman believes the problem on the border isn't those who cross illegally and flood our country with drugs. The problem is the Border Patrol.
The bill would require agents to receive training in minimizing the damage they do to public land and cultural resources; force Homeland Security to pay to repair such damage; repeal Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff's authority to waive environmental laws in construction of border fencing, all but guaranteeing none will be built; and require creation of a fund to protect habitat and wildlife protection, and to minimize the impacts of border enforcement, smuggling and illegal immigration. This conservation fund, by the way, would be multinational, with a requirement that at least 30 percent of its money be spent in Mexico.
Nogales businessman Jim Price, a border-security activist, has argued against both bills in public meetings and in the Nogales International newspaper (which, like the Weekly, is owned by Wick Communications). His position draws howls from wilderness supporters, saying he is alarmist. But he insists Grijalva would be giving smugglers the advantage in an already violent fight for the Highlands.
"We have guys coming from Phoenix with AK-47s trying to get control of that area," Price says. "These people will smuggle whatever. ... It could be guns, anything. Anybody thinking it's just drugs and people coming through there is crazy as hell."
Grijalva, chairman of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, hosted a public hearing on HR 2593 in Brownsville, Texas, on Monday, April 28.
As for his wilderness bill, HR 3287, the congressman has so far been unable to move it out of his subcommittee, and no vote has been scheduled.
To understand the concern, look at a map. Find the portion of the Coronado National Forest that spreads out west of Nogales, and locate the existing Pajarita Wilderness, set right on the border. Grijalva wants to expand the Pajarita by 5,500 acres, bringing it to about 13,000 acres, and add an additional 70,000 acres running up through the Atascosa and Tumacacori Mountains.
In rough outline, the proposed 83,415-acre wilderness would go from the border at the western edge of the Pajarita Wilderness up to Arivaca Lake on the northwest, to just above Sardina Peak on the northeast, and south along I-19 to Nogales. Ten miles of the wilderness would bump up against the Mexican line--at a point where smuggling trails already stream north like the spread-out fingers of a human hand.
Rancher Sonny Clarke, whose land would also be included in the wilderness, lives near the border west of Nogales, and calls what's happening on his land an invasion that brings with it illegal aliens, trash and, worst of all, drugs. "There's not a family in Santa Cruz County or the whole country that hasn't been impacted by the drugs crossing this border," says Clarke. "I have a boy buried in my front yard who got into drugs. You have no idea how bad the trafficking is through here."
Sky Island's Quigley says he has seen some trash piles in the Highlands, but says they're nothing like those on flatter ground elsewhere on the border, such as near Sasabe. "The topography of the Highlands makes it tough to traverse, so in a way, the land protects itself," he says. And crime? Quigley says he doesn't want to minimize anyone's security fears, but he has spent considerable time hiking and camping the Highlands, and he knows others who have as well, without encountering problems. "I think it's overstated," he says.
Keith Graves, Coronado National Forest supervisor, says it's true the Highlands were once relatively free of trash, but no more. The terrain west of Forest Road 222 is particularly bad, as is Red Springs Pass, at the northern end of the Tumacacori Mountains. But any area of the Highlands with a water source--like Pine Canyon and upper Peck Canyon--is often trashed out. How much trash? "I have no idea how many pounds of trash and human feces are scattered across the landscape," Graves says, adding that he lacks the money and manpower to clean it up, much less estimate the amount.
As for crime, Graves says except for the Tohono O'odham Nation, the Tumacacori Highlands is the most active area for criminal activity in the 262-mile-wide Tucson sector. Illegal crossings make it so difficult that Graves struggles to remove smuggler vehicles from forest land, can't keep range fences up, can't keep livestock out of wildlife zones meant to protect endangered species and can't keep Mexican cows from drifting north, a very real national security threat if diseased cows mingle.
He says visitors shouldn't be scared off, although they need to be smart and cautious, as Forest Service employees are. They operate under strict rules similar to those at other borderland preserves. Graves requires his rangers to stay in paved, developed sites when doing cleanup, and can only venture into the backcountry in pairs. The Pajarita Wilderness, formed in 1984, presents a particularly tough challenge. The Forest Service is charged with tending fish habitat in Sycamore Canyon in the Pajarita, monitoring grazing and other chores.
But Graves won't allow his rangers to go farther than 1 mile south from the canyon trailhead on Ruby Road, even though the land continues another 3 miles down to the border. Those final 3 miles are off limits without his permission. "The risk is the traffickers sometimes store drugs in caves, and that's one of the places my people need to go," he says. "We do what we're obligated to do in the Pajarita."
Graves says a cocaine-smuggling operation now dominates the trails through the Pajarita. Smugglers have driven illegal aliens out to keep them from attracting too much Border Patrol attention. The cartels are drawn to that wilderness by the rough landscape and thick cover vegetation, the same conditions that prevail in the Highlands.
Evidence of drug trafficking in this southern portion of the Coronado isn't merely anecdotal: It's on film. The accompanying photo (above), somewhat fuzzy, shows traffickers moving product through Walker Canyon, immediately north of the border in the Pajarito Mountains, east of the Pajarita Wilderness. It was taken in December 2007 and given to the Weekly by a source who asked for anonymity.
Walker Canyon leads up toward Pena Blanca Lake, where, in January, a forest ranger working in the area of the proposed wilderness encountered drug runners heading north. The gangsters threatened the ranger, telling him to keep his mouth shut if he wanted to stay safe.
After bypassing the lake, this trail climbs the Atascosa Mountains into Pine Canyon and upper Peck Canyon. On a mid-August day in 2007, a Green Valley nature photographer was working in Pine Canyon when he climbed above a waterfall to eat lunch. Looking down toward the area he'd departed, he saw men--young Hispanics--carrying huge packs of contraband. He pulled out his telephoto lens and snapped pictures that appeared in The Connection, an Arivaca newspaper. One of those pictures appears on the cover of this issue.
In a piece accompanying the shots, the photographer portrayed himself as a gentle soul, "basically a chronicler of tadpoles and larvae" who suddenly found himself in the middle of the border war. With a dose of irony, he wrote: "The hardships of trekking remote areas are rewarded by the discovery of unique photo opportunities."
Not so unique, actually. Lt Raul Rodriguez, head of special investigations for the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's office, says it has become "almost common" for people hiking and camping in the forest to see drug backpackers.
Those sightings aren't just near the border anymore. They're taking place well to the north around Rock Corral Canyon and Aliso Springs, about 20 miles north of the Mexican border. The reason, says Rodriguez, is that the smugglers are trying to get far enough north to bypass the Border Patrol checkpoint on I-19, at kilometer marker 42, and then access the interstate to head for the interior of the country.
That effort brought shocking violence to national forest land just west of Tubac, most of it between late 2006 and 2007. The gunplay occurred when bandits known as bajadores, most of whom appear to live in Tucson or Phoenix, waited to attack illegals and rival gang members. A list of incidents makes the area sound like a modern Tombstone:
· August 2006: Body of suspected drug
smuggler found in cave.
· December 2006: Illegal alien shot in leg by
men looking for drugs.
· January 2007: Two traffickers shot dead;
two more wounded in attack by men in
· February 2007: Border Patrol agents shoot
and kill suspected drug smuggler carrying
· July 2007: Bandits shoot drug-running
suspect in back and left arm.
· January 2008: Bandits shoot drug runner
in arm, graze a second with bullet.
Rodriguez says the high level of violence, a spillover from Mexico's cartel wars, have diminished in recent months, but his intelligence indicates the area remains active.
From the border north, all of this troubled terrain--Pajarita Wilderness, Atascosa Peak, Pine Canyon, Peck Canyon and the forest land around Rock Corral and Aliso Springs--is within the proposed wilderness area.
So what would be the ground rules for Border Patrol in the wilderness?
Proponents point to a memorandum of understanding signed in the spring of 2006 between the departments of Homeland Security, Agriculture and Interior. It lays out guidelines for security and counterterrorism efforts on all of our borderlands, not just the Highlands. But Sky Island calls it "an important document that has much bearing on the Tumacacori Highlands Wilderness."
That's exactly what worries those who operate ranches within the proposed wilderness. They say it presents a web of bureaucratic dos and don'ts that opens the door for endless fights and meetings.
If the Border Patrol wants to drag public or administrative roads, they'll have to meet with the Forest Service to get permission. (Dragging a road to clear it of footprints and tire ruts is a common tracking technique. If those signs of illegal crossings return, agents can estimate when they were made and roughly where the group might be.) If the Border Patrol wants to install observation posts, video gear, motion sensors or vehicle barriers, they'll have to take another meeting.
If agents want off-road access for routine patrols, they must submit a request in writing. The Forest Service would have to respond "promptly," because of "the importance of this matter to national security." But what exactly is "promptly" in government speak? Ninety days.
What happens if the Forest Service grants permission for some of this gear, but an outside group disagrees, saying it doesn't conform to the definition of a wilderness? Does that mean a trip to court?
The agreement allows Border Patrol agents full access to any part of the wilderness at any time if, in their professional judgment, there's an emergency involving human life, safety or a threat to national security. But read closely. Border Patrol can pursue as long as it "is reasonably expected to result in the apprehension of the suspected CBVs (cross-border violators)." What if they go in and don't catch bad guys? Does that make it unreasonable? Then what?
It gets even more complicated. If the off-road pursuit causes "significant" damage to the land, the Border Patrol must issue a written report on the matter and have another meeting with the Forest Service to resolve the problem. If Border Patrol and Forest Service officials can't solve the matter locally, the dispute goes to the sector level for more meetings, then to D.C. for--you guessed it--more meetings.
"These guidelines are very, very open to interpretation," says Graves.
It's not just ranchers who worry about restrictions on law enforcement in the wilderness. So does the Forest Service's deputy chief, Joel Holtrop, as he testified before Grijalva's subcommittee in November, and so does Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Her spokesman says she could support the wilderness bill but doesn't--in spite of a false report in the Arizona Daily Star that she was a co-sponsor. "Our understanding is the bill as currently worded could inhibit their (Border Patrol's) ability to do their job," says C.J. Karamargin. "The congresswoman wants to make sure that is not the case."
Grijalva says he has been meeting with the Border Patrol to negotiate access issues, but declined to be specific about what was on the table. Border Patrol officials won't comment, either. But a source tells the Weekly the agency wants much of the infrastructure they already have on the land to stay, including sensors, fencing equipment and remote video gear, and they want to be able to put more in. They also want wide road access, and they want to continue to use helicopters, patrol trucks and other mechanized gear.
The Tumacacori Highlands were considered for wilderness designation in 1984, when the Pajarita Wilderness was formed, but support didn't exist then to push it through. The bill today has an impressive list of backers who, it seems, outweigh opponents. These include some who don't usually invest much passion in environmental causes, including hunting groups and the Tubac Chamber of Commerce.
Some see economic benefits; others say the Highlands is a fragile and unique place that needs protection from the destruction and noise of off-road vehicles. Proponents also argue that anyone who paints the issue as a choice between wilderness and security is posing a false problem. Grijalva says he recognizes the security issue, but adds, "It isn't an either-or proposition."
Quigley says the biggest, long-term threat to the Highlands isn't the border crisis, but a soaring population in the surrounding area that might turn the Highlands into, as he puts it, "Redington Pass two."
"This is the last remaining roadless area that the Forest Service manages in Arizona that doesn't have wilderness (protections)," Quigley says. "That's a special thing, and we should protect it. Because of what we're doing now, people 25 or 50 years from now will still be able see Arizona as it used to be. This is old Arizona."
But some of those who live on the land now, and oppose the wilderness, are themselves old Arizona. Sonny Clarke's family has been ranching west of Nogales for five generations. His great-grandfather, Canadian-born Richard Harrison Clarke, moved to the area from Hermosillo with Guadalupe Camacho, his Mexican wife, in 1882.
The grazing permit for the Rock Corral Ranch has been in Jean England Neubauer's family since 1931. David Lowell grew up in Nogales, and he and Edith have owned their Atascosa ranch for 33 years.
Of the seven ranchers with permits to graze on the affected land, six oppose the wilderness. Apart from security, one of the main reasons is the simplest: The land is already protected Forest Service land, well-managed and not subject to development--so why make it wilderness? Why shut people out? Why make it more difficult to access?
Fear of an over-burdensome bureaucracy is another reason. Permittee Ron Searle, of the Arivaca Ranch, writes in an e-mail that he already struggles with "political bureaucrats dictating policies in areas they often have never even seen."
Neubauer concurs and cites an example. She and her husband, William, have a small biological reserve on their allotment upon which she grows a rare species of chile. She created the plot in the late '90s, in conjunction with Gary Nabhan, then with Native Seeds/SEARCH, and a Nogales forest ranger. "We're thrilled it's there," says Neubauer. "The reserve was a way of letting us all coexist."
She believes a wilderness would make creating such a reserve much more difficult: "We have too many people who feel the need to control the environment in a much more restrictive way than is necessary. You can almost hear them running to the manual, saying, 'What does the manual say we can do?' Part of the joy of living in the West is self-sufficiency. I'm as much an environmentalist as anyone, and I'd like to stand up and say we're doing a good job with this land as it is. This wilderness is overkill."
Grijalva, sounding frustrated by the opposition, says he's heard the complaints of ranchers on several items and addressed them. He says grazing rights have been grandfathered into the bill in perpetuity, so ranchers can't oppose it on that. Then he made sure they can get into the wilderness with equipment to maintain water sources and get to sick animals. Then it was their ability to use roads and paths to do their jobs. "All of that has been taken care of, so this (security) is the new issue," Grijalva says. "When we're done with that language, we'll see if they change their minds."
The implication is obvious: Ranchers will object no matter what, and he might be right. No trust exists between the two sides. Zero.
The majority of the permittees, based on problems that have cropped up in other wilderness areas around the country, say they do not believe pre-passage promises on anything. Jim Chilton foresees a situation where he needs to get back into his ranch with a bulldozer to clean out his waters. He gets the Forest Service go-ahead, but then the Center for Biological Diversity, a group he has locked horns with before, sues and stops him.
"Supporters have a history of playing a duplicitous role in wilderness creation," says Chilton, chairman of the Federal Lands Committee of the Arizona Cattle Growers Association. "Get the legislation passed under false pretenses, then start filing lawsuits to change everything they're concerned about. They did it at the Cabeza Prieta and the Kofa preserves in western Arizona, and I predict they'll do it here, too."
On the roads issue, there already are questions. Sky Island's Quigley says open roads will stay open once the Highlands become wilderness, and his group will fight to keep them open if anyone objects. But Keith Graves says flatly that he can't guarantee the public that roads penetrating the wilderness will, in fact, stay open.
"All I've seen are preliminary maps, and they mean nothing until the law is passed," he says. "There'll be negotiations, and things will change, and you won't know exactly what the final product is until it becomes law. The law will identify access. Once that's done, all I can do is manage the policy that comes out of it."
David Lowell says passage of the Tumacacori Wilderness might mean the end of ranching on their 36-square-mile Atascosa Ranch, 80 percent of which would be included. The ranch is divided into 23 pastures, requiring miles of barbed wire. With druggies and illegals routinely cutting fences, repair is difficult enough for a cowboy in a pickup. But if the use of roads and trucks is limited, and barbed-wire rolls must be loaded onto horses, the job becomes almost impossible in terrain that is heavily mountainous.
He says the ranch is already operating at a loss due to increased regulation, gas prices and the drought. "If the wilderness forces us to adopt 19th-century methods--like horses over pickups, axes over chainsaws or shovels over bulldozers--we'd probably have to cease ranching operations," David Lowell says.
Graves raises another point: This wilderness will bring the Forest Service and ranchers into an entirely different era. Yes, the Pajarita Wilderness already exists on the border, and the Bell family ranches there and, with so much illegal cross-border traffic, they face a daily fight keeping their fences up. But the Pajarita is small. Add to it more borderland, plus the vast acreage of the Atascosa and Tumacacori Mountains, and the issue changes dramatically. If Forest Service and ranchers cannot maintain the constantly cut fences, they can be challenged in court for being unable to keep cattle where they're supposed to be.
Graves says if he landed before a judge and was asked if he's able to administer the grazing allotment to standard, he'd have to say no. "The judge would have to find in favor of the opponent, and we'd lose the allotment," says Graves. "I'm not saying that's going to happen, but it's a possibility. This is new terrain with so much wilderness right on the border, and all the crossings and illegal activity going on."
Among those holding grazing permits on the would-be wilderness, only the Bell family supports Grijalva's bill. Along with Sky Island and the Wilderness Society, the Bells co-signed an endorsement letter to Arizona's congressional delegation. More of the Bells' land would be impacted than anyone else's. But even their support sounds shaky. Dan Bell told the Weekly he worries about the Border Patrol's ability to continue to work the area and keep his family and his cowboys safe.
"I'm trying to be cooperative and understanding," he says. "But as soon as I see that Border Patrol is impeded from going in there, we're jumping off, and I'll oppose it full-bore, and I told them that."
Drivers along I-19 between Tucson and Nogales pass a sign announcing the turnoff to Peck Canyon Road. It's named for Al Peck, who is remembered today for what he endured on April 17, 1886. That day, the warrior Geronimo, the last holdout in the long Apache wars, roared across the border on horseback from his hideout in the Mexican Sierra Madre Mountains, leading a party of about 15 men.
Looking to steal ammunition and more horses, they swept through the Santa Cruz River Valley, on a path coinciding with today's interstate, and turned southwest into Peck Canyon. Two miles west of where the Lowells live, the renegades came upon Al Peck's ranch. They murdered Peck's wife, his daughter and one of his cowboys. Peck, a lifelong stutterer, survived by a most unusual means: When Geronimo dismounted and approached, Peck was so terrified, he began to babble uncontrollably, and this caused Geronimo to back up in fear. Apaches never killed those they considered "touched by the spirit," a prohibition that kept Peck alive, saved by the illusion of insanity.
David Lowell's grandfather, who lived in Nogales, served on the coroner's jury for the Geronimo murders, and today, the family sometimes wonders how much things have changed. They wonder when they drive past the garbage that drug smugglers leave off their driveway. And when they look at the alarm system they had to install and the security cage over their utility box to prevent anyone from cutting the wires. And when they see drug scouts on hilltops guiding burreros away from Border Patrol, and when smugglers enter their yard and refuse to leave when told to.
The latest outrage: Smugglers use the family's hay barn to hole up for the night. "They've turned it into a regular hotel," says Edith. They arrange the bales to avoid being seen through the barn's open sides and to make cozy sleeping arrangements. When they leave, the Lowells find soda cans fashioned into marijuana bongs--by stuffing the opening with pot, using a lighter to heat the bottom and inhaling the smoke.
"I guess we're living with a modern version of the Apaches," Edith says.
But one thing has changed from decades past: The Lowells' home tap water, which comes from a well in Peck Canyon, is now contaminated by fecal bacteria, probably because of the heavy cross-border traffic. All the Lowells know for sure is that the water only began showing contamination five years ago.
"The vast numbers coming across have totally changed the picture here," she says. The Lowells used to keep ready-made food packages to hand out to illegal crossers. But they had to stop about the year 2000. "Before, it was a few people coming to work. Now, it's young men carrying drugs."
The picture at the Atascosa Ranch, and elsewhere in the Highlands, is about to change again, and for the worse, even without the wilderness. The feds are putting up fences along the border on the western and eastern sides of the proposed wilderness, and that is expected to funnel illegals, drug runners and whatever else right up through the Pajarito, Atascosa and Tumacacori Mountains.
That will mean, as Graves predicts, more trash, more human feces, more drugs, more desperate people and more fires, just as summer heats up.
"Wilderness will make this smuggling corridor even more dangerous than it is already," says Edith. "We don't need it. We need personal security, and we need border security."