SAN DIEGO - An historic canyon, used in years past by cattle rustlers and bandits as an illegal border crossing between Mexico and the United States and more recently by illegal immigrants, is slated to be wiped off the map.
The federal government's project to fill in Smuggler's Gulch with dirt is scheduled to be completed by May. The government has lopped off the top of nearby hills and shoved some 1.7 million cubic yards of earth into the pass and neighboring Goat Canyon.
Environmentalists fear that the project will harm endangered fauna, the Tijuana Estuary and Native American sites.
"We've lost sensitive habitat and the estuary is now threatened," Jim Peugh, conservation chairman of the San Diego Audubon Society, told the Los Angeles Times.
But Border Patrol officials say the move, which includes installing lighting, fencing and surveillance cameras, will help them control the porous border.
Smuggler's Gulch became known in the 1880s when the U.S. government established customs duties at San Ysidro, a nearby border town. People started using the gulch to smuggle goods in to the United States to avoid the duties.
A century later, the pass was a main conduit for illegal immigration, but it was known as a risky journey. Immigrants were frequently robbed and raped or charged tolls for passage. Border agents were shot at.
In the 1990s, stepped up law enforcement efforts pushed illegal immigration flows to other areas, but the gulch was still being used by smugglers.
Local historian Charles W. Hughes said it was a shame that the gulch, which was used by some of California's earliest settlers, is being destroyed. "We talk about trying to preserve our history," he told the Los Angeles Times. "And yet they can come in and do this."