BLM Spurned Chief Ranger's Recommendation to Close National Monument Near Mexican Border for Safety Reasons
(CNSNews.com) -- The chief ranger of the 478,000-acre Sonoran Desert National Monument, which sits in south-central Arizona about 60 miles north of the Mexican border, recommended that the monument be closed to the public because of what he believed to be a safety threat posed by drug smugglers coming across the Mexican border and moving through the monument.
Higher-ups in the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees the monument for the federal government, turned aside his request, however, according to the BLM and the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
Starting in 2009, the BLM, a division of the U.S. Department of Interior, did place signs in the area, warning Americans about the risks of visiting federal lands deep within U.S. territory.
In 2010, three years after the chief ranger tried to get permission to close the monument, an Arizona deputy sheriff was wounded in the area, two suspected drug smugglers were shot by rival drug smugglers, and a citizen became the victim of an attempted car-jacking.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is suing the state of Arizona for allegedly usurping the federal government’s rightful authority to enforce the immigration laws of the United States.
“The Chief Ranger for the Sonoran Desert National Monument stated that it would be useful to have additional DOI [Department of Interior] guidance in making Bureau of Land Management land closure decisions,” the GAO said in a report published in November.
“He stated that he had previously proposed the closure of this monument, but was unsuccessful in convincing Bureau of Land Management officials of the threats posed by cross-border illegal activity in this area because of the requirement to demonstrate ‘extreme danger’ based on law enforcement intelligence information, which he was unable to demonstrate because of staffing limitations,” said the GAO.
“Nonetheless,” said the GAO, “in response to increased threats to the monument, including the wounding of an Arizona county deputy sheriff in April 2010 and the killing of two suspected drug smugglers shot by a rival drug organization in May 2010, Bureau of Land Management officials posted warning signs at 11 entrance locations of the monument to warn the public against travel on portions of the monument because of potential encounters with armed criminals and smugglers’ vehicles traveling at high rates of speed .”
Richard Stana, the GAO’s director of homeland security and justice issues who put together the report about the issue, told CNSNews.com that the monument was not closed because the senior ranger was unable to convince “higher-ups” in the Department of Interior of the threats to the public from illegal activity on the border.
Stana said the ranger said he “didn’t have enough resources to develop the kind of information required by the higher-ups to prove extreme danger.”
Thomas Lister, chief law enforcement ranger for the BLM in Arizona and incident commander for BLM border issues, told CNSNews.com that “in 2009, a BLM law enforcement ranger recommended closing the Sonoran Desert National Monument,” citing “human and drug smuggling operations” as the reason.
“A determination was made not to close the area to the public,” said Lister, “however, the concerns raised did initiate a planning process to improve the conditions in the area.”
These included increasing the number of BLM rangers patrolling the monument, increasing joint-agency law enforcement operations, installing a 1.3-mile-long barrier to deter illegal traffic, reclaiming and restoring an eight-mile-long illegal road, and posting warning signs, Lister told CNSNews.com.
Lister also confirmed to CNSNews.com the incidents involving the deputy who was wounded and the drug smugglers who were killed at the monument, and added that there also was an attempted car-jacking at the monument.
Lister said one reason the BLM kept the monument open is that the “law-abiding people” who use the area for recreation “are aware of the conditions, are familiar with the surroundings, and desire continued access to these public lands.”
Since May 2009, signs “intended to help people make informed decisions” have been posted on BLM lands to warn about drug smuggling and illegal immigration, said Lister.
“Another consideration is that smugglers passing through the Monument have tended to be focused on delivery of their illegal products,” said Lister. “Violence and threats have generally not been aimed at recreational users of the Monument lands.”
“We feel that we have the tools and the ability to evaluate whether an area is in ‘extreme danger,’” he said. “If the process of making such a determination becomes more standardized as a result of the GAO report, then we, of course, will abide by those standards.”
“I have had only one instance in which a subordinate recommended closing BLM lands due to border activity,” added Lister.
However, the GAO’s Stana told CNSNews.com that “2007 was the first time the BLM Chief Ranger tried to close the Sonoran Desert National Monument, but was unable to convince his superiors that there was a public safety threat stemming from illegal border activity.”
“Since 2007, threats have increased to the Sonoran Desert National Monument,” said Stana. “The Ranger's position is the fact that guns have been recovered from the Monument and people have been shot is sufficient reason to close the Monument, but this information was insufficient to convince managers. Better criteria are needed.”
As a result of implementing a plan to “improve public safety, protect natural resources and increase the level of agency cooperation,” new temporary signs have now been erected to “advise that the area is an active federal law enforcement patrol area and that cleanup and restoration crews are at work,” Lister told CNSNews.com.
The Sonoran Desert National Monument is just north of the Tohono O’odham Nation Indian Reservation which sits on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Lister said the “southern edge of the Monument is about 60 miles from the Mexican border.”
Despite the warning signs that have been erected in Arizona, the GAO concluded that government agencies responsible for managing federal lands lack “standard procedures dictating when and how the public should be informed of illegal border activity and such guidance may help provide support for taking action.”
The GAO also said that “political sensitivities” have sometimes interfered with the posting of warning signs.
According to the GAO, officials from the Department of Interior's National Park Service in charge of the Coronado National Memorial were asked by “Arizona state officials to remove [warning signs] because of political sensitivities. These signs were reposted on forest land that could not be seen from the highway.”
The 4,750-acre Coronado National Memorial is located on the U.S.-Mexico border, in the far southeastern corner of Arizona.
The chief ranger of the Coronado National Memorial, GAO reported, “said that he had safety concerns regarding border-related hazards. However, the Park Superintendent said she has not exercised her authority to close areas of the park because the National Park Service at the local, regional and national level has not fully analyzed the level of cross-border illegal traffic within the memorial or the severity of the threat to visitors and employees.”
“In the meantime, the Chief Ranger posted signs to warn the public about illegal cross-border activity that are used throughout the National Park Service lands along the Mexico border,” said GAO.
Stana told CNSNews.com, “The Chief Ranger said he had considered closures in order to ensure public safety in areas of high illegal alien traffic.”
“His concerns were ongoing from 2007 through January 2010 when we interviewed him,” Stana said.
Kym Hall, the National Park Service Superintendent in charge of making closure decisions at the Coronado National Memorial, told CNSNews.com that no ranger has ever proposed closing the memorial.
Public safety was never at risk from illegal border activity there, according to Hall.
“If the public was at risk, trust me, we would have closed the memorial,” she told CNSNews.com.
Hall told CNSNews.com that she is satisfied with the existing level of resources and public safety guidance available to deal with illegal activities on the borderlands managed by the National Park Service.
Federal lands make up about 43 percent of the approximately 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border and about 25 percent of the nearly 4,000-mile U.S.-Canada border, the audit stated.
Here is entirety of a statement that Tom Lister, the BLM’s chief law enforcement ranger in Arizona, provided to CNSNews.com:
“First of all, please be aware that the BLM Arizona has three long-term goals on lands affected by border activity. Those goals are providing a safe environment for the public and employees; protection of natural and cultural resources; and, increased cooperation with other Federal, state, tribal, and local agencies in law enforcement and resource protection operations.
“We welcome recommended changes in the GAO report that will help us continue to meet those goals.
“Your inquiries focus on a statement on Page 21 of the GAO report. Here is our response to your questions.
“In 2009, a BLM law enforcement ranger recommended closing the Sonoran Desert National Monument. He cited human and drug smuggling operations in the 478,000-acre Monument, which is southwest of Phoenix, Arizona. The southern edge of the Monument is about 60 miles from the Mexican border. The Monument adjoins a large Indian reservation, which borders Mexico.
“A determination was made not to close the area to the public; however, the concerns raised did initiate a planning process to improve the conditions in the area. As part of our strategy, we have increased the number of rangers patrolling in the Sonoran Desert National Monument. We have accomplished that by refocusing our Arizona ranger resources and by bringing in BLM rangers from other states on temporary assignments.
“We continue to improve our cooperative law enforcement efforts with partner agencies in the region. Our active role with the Alliance to Combat Transnational Threats (ACTT, cited in the report) is an example of our increased joint-agency law enforcement operations focused on improving the area’s safety and protecting natural resources.
“Protecting natural resources is important to us. Since early September 2010, we have cleaned up more than 11 tons of trash left behind by those engaged in illegal activities. We have installed a 1.3-mile barrier that deters illegal traffic in the Monument. An eight-mile illegal road is being reclaimed and restored to desert conditions.
“Another consideration in keeping the Monument open is that a number of law-abiding people for years have used the Sonoran Desert National Monument as a place of recreation. Those people generally are aware of the conditions, are familiar with the surroundings, and desire continued access to these public lands. Permanent signs have been in place on some BLM lands since May 2009 that warn of smuggling and illegal immigration. Those signs are intended to help people make informed decisions on using these public lands.
“Another consideration is that smugglers passing through the Monument have tended to be focused on delivery of their illegal products. Violence and threats have generally not been aimed at recreational users of the Monument lands.
“In June 2010, temporary warning signs, in addition to permanent caution signs, were posted after a series of incidents. Those incidents included a county deputy sheriff being injured in a shootout; two illegal immigrants shot to death, and a law-abiding citizen becoming a victim of an attempted carjacking.
“Prior to placing those temporary signs, we began implementing a strategic
plan with specific goals to improve public safety, protect natural resources and increase the level of agency cooperation.
“As a result of implementing the plan, conditions improved to the point that the temporary signs were replaced in October 2010. New temporary signs advise that the area is an active Federal law enforcement patrol area and that cleanup and restoration crews are at work. Those signs reflect BLM’s intent to educate the public about current conditions.
“It is worth noting that BLM-managed lands are distinctly different from lands managed by the National Park Service. While BLM encourages use of the public lands, it does not provide the levels of public accommodations that are found in national parks.
“We at BLM Arizona take seriously our role in managing public lands and in protecting the public. We feel that we have the tools and the ability to evaluate whether an area is in ‘extreme danger.’ If the process of making such a determination becomes more standardized as a result of the GAO report, then we, of course, will abide by those standards.
“As chief law enforcement officer for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Arizona and the Incident Commander for BLM border issues, I have had only one instance in which a subordinate recommended closing BLM lands due to border activity.
“BLM law enforcement rangers and other BLM employees are encouraged to make recommendations and express opinions backed by their professional observations and experience. In each case the recommendation is evaluated and decisions are made based on the data. In law enforcement matters on public lands in the border region, those recommendations would come to me.
“In the case referenced in the GAO report, BLM Arizona’s choices were not limited to closing or not closing the Sonoran Desert National Monument. We had a range of options. We chose to increase patrols and law enforcement operations, add communications equipment, and to install a 1.3-mile barrier that blocks an illegal road. We also placed temporary signs that alerted the public to potential dangers. This multi-faceted approach was selected after evaluation of reports and data from a number of sources.
“BLM’s Arizona Borderlands Safe Work Policy of May 7, 2010, which is referenced in the GAO report, describes three tiers of emergency responses.
“The first tier is to maintain current policy. The second tier requires a management response and increased law enforcement efforts. Those efforts can include public advisory notices and increased law enforcement patrols.
“Tier 3 refers to the extreme danger that you mention. The response to that tier of emergency may include, but does not require, closure of public lands. It is not possible to identify when a Tier 3 situation would warrant closure of public lands. Each situation is evaluated and a decision made based on those circumstances.
“As the chief law enforcement officer for BLM Arizona, I feel that the policy is appropriate in protecting the public, our employees, and the natural resources that we manage. Furthermore, we have made considerable progress in the implementing actions in the Sonoran Desert National Monument.”