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Sunday, 1 October 2000

Study OKs Border Patrol buildup

An environmental assessment has given the U.S. Border Patrol a green light to continue with plans to add more fencing, lights and surveillance equipment along the border.

The assessment examining the coorridor between Naco and Douglas concluded the agency's past, current and future projects for countering illegal immigration and drug trafficking won't significantly harm the environment or endangered or threatened species.

It doesn't necessarily mean the agency can proceed full speed, however.

A spokesman for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity said his environmental organization is considering a lawsuit over concerns about potential harm to endangered or threatened animals and plants from broader construction.

In late May, officials of the Border Patrol and its parent agency, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, temporarily halted plans to add a 1.9-mile extension to a steel fence near the Douglas port of entry.

They also held up installation of 1.8 miles of lighting on both sides of the port and 15 miles of road improvements to allow a contractor to complete an environmental assessment.

Douglas is about 20 miles east of Naco on the Arizona-Mexico border in southeastern Cochise County.

Both are legal ports of entry, and in recent years both communities have seen the number of illegal immigrants crossing through the area mushroom. The soaring numbers have led to a corresponding buildup in resources and the number of Border Patrol agents posted in the area.

Officials see the planned improvements on top of the enhancements already completed - from steel mat fencing and stadium-style lights to new border roads, sensors, barriers and added remote video surveillance cameras - as critical to gaining and extending control of the border.

The environmental study concluded, "The preferred alternative would not have a significant adverse effect on the environment," wrote Richard J. Diefenbeck, director of the INS office of administration.

Among a dozen endangered species of fish, mammals, birds and plants found in Cochise County are jaguar, jaguarundi, ocelot and lesser long-nosed bat.

Another seven species are listed as threatened.

The review was a cumulative document that examined the entire INS program in the Naco-Douglas corridor since 1995 and looks into the foreseeable future, said Sharon Gavin, INS regional spokeswoman in Laguna Niguel, Calif.

The preferred of three possible alternatives included completing currently approved projects as well as those anticipated over the next five years.

The environmental assessment, produced by Gulf South Research Corp. of Baton Rouge, La., described as minimal the impacts that have occurred from construction projects since 1995.

Brian Segee, a staff member with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the Border Patrol and INS voluntarily delayed the work out of concern that there might be a lawsuit over compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act.

Once the environmental assessment was completed, a 30-day comment period followed, after which Diefenbeck issued his decision notice.

Segee said only the Arizona Game and Fish Department commented on the environmental assessment, except for the center's response, which the INS originally contested as being late.

But Segee said that after complaining to an oversight council, he was told the INS will withdraw its decision and issue a new report taking the center's comments into account.