Military engineers dig in to support Border Patrol
Posted: Tuesday, January 24, 2012 8:28 am
Military engineers dig in to support Border Patrol
By Jonathan Clark Nogales International
On Jan. 6, members of an Alaska-based Army airborne engineer brigade
parachuted out of an Air Force plane at Fort Huachuca. Since then,
they've been working to cut 0.7 miles of border access road through
rugged terrain approximately 3 miles west of the Mariposa Port of
Entry in Nogales.
Project organizers say the experience, from the parachute drop-in to
the remote road-building and eventual departure on Feb. 27, mirrors
the type of mission the 40 soldiers might conduct if they were
deployed to a place like Afghanistan.
"This will prepare them for future deployments, especially in the
areas of current contingency operations," said Armando Carrasco,
spokesman for the Department of Defense's Joint Task Force North (JTF
North), the agency that coordinated the mission.
Standing on a hilltop above the work site Friday as heavy machinery
dug through a steep slope below her, mission commander Lt. Michelle
Zak spoke of the difficulties of maneuvering large earth movers
around the mountains, canyons and ravines of western Santa Cruz County.
"It's been challenging, but also a great opportunity for us to
train," she said.
This effort, along with other military road-building projects that
have been conducted in the county in recent years, also provides a
great opportunity for agents at the U.S. Border Patrol's Nogales
Station to gain better access to some of their hardest-to-control areas.
"You've got to look at it as a win-win situation," said Agent Steven
Passement, a spokesman for the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector.
"One, for the unit that's here and the units that will come, it's
real-world training experience," he said. "And for us, we're getting
infrastructure put in place that's going to be permanent."
Those permanent roads, built with drainage culverts to keep them from
washing out, helps agents responds faster to illegal activity in the
area and provide aid more quickly to migrants in distress. What's
more, Passement said, a better road surface means less wear-and-tear
on Border Patrol vehicles, and therefore less expenditures on new
tires, shock absorbers and struts.
Local residents and businesses are also benefiting from the
arrangement. The current group of 40 engineers is staying at a local
hotel and spending some of their pocket money at local establishments.
"I know a lot of the soldiers have been out on the town, and they've
enjoyed the tacos that come from the trucks," Zak said.
Rancher Dan Bell, who grazes cattle in the same section of Coronado
National Forest lands where the road are being built, says he's seen
an improvement in security in the area since the road-building began.
"Prior to these roads going in, there really wasn't any way to get to
the border in a lot of these areas," Bell said. "It's allowed (Border
Patrol) to actually get down to the border and patrol the actual
border rather than a larger area that they'd have to hike or go into
The soldiers themselves are not engaged in any law enforcement
activity while on the road-building projects, Carrasco said. That
duty is left up to the Border Patrol.
Since the construction is taking place on National Forest land, the
U.S. Forest Service has been included in the project planning, and an
environmental monitor is on hand to make sure the project stays
within the construction easement, said Maj. Chris Neels, mission
planner for JTF North.
Even so, environmentalists like Jenny Neeley, conservation policy
director at the Tucson-based Sky Island Alliance, say they are
worried about the long-term effects of border-infrastructure projects
that are conducted outside of federal environmental law. Since April
2008, the Department of Homeland Security has operated under a waiver
that allows it to build border fencing and related infrastructure in
the U.S. Southwest without having to adhere to more than 30
"We're extremely disappointed that none of it is subject to review
under the National Environmental Policy Act because of the existing
waiver along the border," Neeley said. "Those roads are being
installed without any oversight whatsoever, in terms of regulatory
oversight or having to follow best practices."
Neeley said she hadn't seen the particular roads being built west of
Nogales, but she said there have been numerous projects carried out
under the waiver that have later led to erosion and flooding. She
cited an example from the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where
rainwater runoff collapsed a 40-foot stretch of new border fence in
August 2010 due to faulty design.
A Department of Homeland Security-sponsored public forum in December
2010 laid out the technical details and environmental analysis that
had gone into the planning of the agency's border road and fence
projects in and around Nogales. Still, Greg Gephart, program manager
for tactical infrastructure for U.S. Customs and Border Protection,
acknowledged that the projects would be conducted under the
"The waiver doesn't mean we're throwing out all environmental
considerations," Gephart said at the time. "It's just a method that
allows us to expedite the construction."
The 40 Army engineers currently deployed to Nogales work six days a
week, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Even so, due to the terrain, theirs is
the first of three phases necessary to complete the 0.7 miles of
What's more, military units are scheduled to execute four additional
engineering missions in the Nogales area in support of the Border
Patrol during the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
It's all organized by JTF North, based at Fort Bliss, Texas, which
has been supporting federal law enforcement agencies along the
Southwest border since 1989. Working as a liaison between law
enforcement and all four branches of the military, JTF North has
coordinated engineering missions that built and improved roads and
installed border lighting, fencing and vehicle barriers in areas
stretching from California to Texas.
The majority of the costs of the projects are paid for with
Department of Defense counter-drug funds, JTF North says; the
participating law enforcement agency covers only the cost of materials.
For example, Tucson-based Hertz Equipment Rental has been contracted
to provide the heavy machinery for the current road effort, as well
as training and maintenance. That's all covered by JTF North,
As for the price tag for the 0.7-mile road project, Carrasco
estimated $400,000 for Phases 1 and 2 and $350,000 for Phase 3 - a
grand total of $1.15 million.
Part of the expense includes the cost of housing the soldiers at an
area hotel, which is also contracted to provide the team with a hot
breakfast and dinner each day. (JTF North declined to name the hotel,
citing security concerns.)
"It also creates a good quality of life for them while they're
deployed on this mission," he said. "Obviously they work very hard,
so it's important that we also take care of them during their down
As for the military engineers, they say they are greatly appreciative
of the good meals and soft beds - as well as the warm, sunny weather
of Southern Arizona. After all, they left their home base in the
middle of the frigid, snowy and daylight-deprived Alaska winter.
Specialist Nickalous Herd, a native of Atlanta, praised the
"wonderful weather, wonderful people and wonderful state" as he stood
at the worksite Friday under clear blue skies and 70-degree
temperatures. And while the local terrain has been a challenge to
work with, Herd said, he has also enjoyed its rugged beauty.
"It is beautiful, it is extremely beautiful here," he said.
Sgt. Everell Gustave, a native of the Boston area, said the
experience of coming to a new area and working under new conditions
with new equipment has been an important skill-builder for his team,
which, if deployed to Afghanistan, might parachute into a remote area
to rebuild roads, supply routes and airstrips.
"It is definitely a good feeling for our guys. We are getting the
training that we need to be successful anywhere around the world,"
Gustave said. "Helping out the Border Patrol is just a plus."