TUCSON - A contractor is set to start building a 7-mile stretch of new border fencing near Sasabe on Monday, the first barriers designed to stop people from crossing the U.S. Mexico border between Nogales and San Luis.
But some environmentalists are upset about the government's decision to sign off on the project's environmental assessment without notifying the public or allowing a comment period.
The fence will have 12-foot-high steel posts set 4-inches apart, forming a barrier that water and small animals can move through, but larger mammals and people can't, said Dove Haber, a spokesman for the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector. It will be built by Phoenix-based Sundt Construction Inc. under a $31.5 million contract from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The project is the first anti-pedestrian fencing to be built on the 240-mile stretch of desert between Nogales and San Luis and the first in the Tucson Sector built with money from the Secure Fence Act of 2006. The agency has so far used those funds to extend existing fencing at Naco and Douglas.
A final environmental assessment for the project was issued in July, with a finding of "no significant impact." But the report was issued without publishing a draft or allowing public commentary.
That's a problem, say environmentalists like Matt Clark, Southwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife.
Clark said the barrier will cut off access for jaguars, potentially closing the door on the animal's recovery in the U.S. It would also be harmful for pygmy owls and could damage other nearby wildlife habitats if it forces border crossers and law enforcement into new areas.
The fence will be built along the Mexican border adjoining the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, at State Route 286.
Mitch Ellis, the refuge manager, said the fence will allow 3,500 acres closed to the public for safety reasons since Oct. 3 to reopen.
All but about three-quarters of a mile of fencing runs along a federal easement. Ellis said he won't allow the section that is to be put up on refuge land to be built until requirements are met.
"I'm not going to give them the permit until they go through the process and do it right," said Ellis, citing a pending biological opinion about jaguars and a cultural resource review about Tohono O'odham Indian sites in the area.
Although the fence isn't on the Tohono O'odham Nation, tribal Chairman Ned Norris Jr. said the project will adversely affect five of the tribe's cultural sites and that the tribe was not properly consulted.
Border Patrol officials said Monday they couldn't comment about why there was no public comment period or details of how to handle wildlife or cultural sites.
"That's really an unfortunate decision because as far as the Nation is concerned there are archaeological issues we are very concerned about," Norris said. "We don't believe the notices have been properly issued."