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Border trash troubles
Despite cleanup efforts by various agencies and the federal government in the desert along the border, southern Arizona, including Yuma County, still faces the problem of trash left behind by illegal border-crossers.
Although trash is found all over the desert, larger quantities found in Yuma County are along the Colorado River and in designated "lay-up" spots or desert areas where undocumented immigrants await to be picked up, usually near interstate freeways and highways, said Ruben Conde, chief ranger for the Bureau of Land Management Colorado District.
Over this year, the Yuma sector Border Patrol has seen less trash, due possibly to the 68 percent decrease in the number of entries, although littering remains a problems, said Border Patrol spokesman Lloyd Easterling.
"I'm sure it's not all illegal aliens (leaving all the trash) but a great majority of it is," Easterling said.
The BLM Yuma Field Office sees a large amount of trash such as "lots and lots" of water bottles, food containers and clothing, plus items that help aid illegal crossings like carpet, foam and abandoned smuggling vehicles, Conde said.
"It runs a gamut depending on which area, which part of the border," Conde said.
When driving in the desert, smugglers not only violate regulations by driving off established roads and trails on public land but also destroy the landscape and vegetation, Conde said.
"They don't care if they're tearing up the landscape, if they're causing land erosion, if they're running over protected plants or cactus or anything like that. So that's a problem we're left with. The results of that: a scarred landscape and it looks terrible."
The amount of personal trash left behind also causes a "huge problem" because there are not enough people and resources to keep up with the area's desert cleanup. The trash that is never picked up is left and harms the environment.
"There's so much of it (trash) there's not enough volunteers to go to all these different places," Conde said.
Even Border Patrol agents have helped out in community projects to help clean up the desert, and individual agents occasionally fill up a plastic bag and bring it back to a city trash bin, Easterling said.
Nonbiodegradeable plastics, other man-made materials and other disposables left along the river bottom can get into the river channel, causing harm to fish and birds, Conde said.
Animals get tangled up in items and swallow objects that kill them, in addition to being disrupted in their natural environment by all the human activity.
Among the animals living in the area are two endangered species, the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and the Yuma Clapper Rail, which primarily live along the Colorado River along the border, Conde said.
"It seems like a rare and minor thing but it's not, it's pretty serious. We're not
talking casual littering by a few people."
Not only does the trash do damage to the environment, but the cleanup is "extremely expensive, extremely expensive. We've spent tens of thousands of dollars just out of the Yuma field office over the past couple of years cleaning up trash related to illegal border crossers," Conde said.
Authorities estimate the 3.2 million-plus immigrants caught by the Border Patrol dropped 25 million pounds of garbage in the southern Arizona desert from July 1999 through June 2005. The figure assumes that each illegal immigrant discards eight pounds of trash, the weight of some abandoned backpacks found in the desert.
The trash is piling up faster than it can be cleaned up. Considering that the Border Patrol apprehended more than 577,000 illegal immigrants in 2004-05 alone, the BLM figures that those people left almost 4 million pounds of trash that same year.
That’s 16 times what was picked up in three years. And that doesn’t include the unknown amounts of garbage left by border-crossers who don’t get caught.
In 2002, the United States estimated that removing all litter from lands just in southeast Arizona — east of the Tohono Reservation — would cost about $4.5 million over five years. This count didn’t include such trash hotbeds as Ironwood Forest National Monument, the Altar Valley, Organ Pipe and Cabeza Prieta.
Since then, Congress appropriated about $3.4 million for a wide range of environmental remediation measures in all of southern Arizona. This includes repairing roads, building fences and removing abandoned cars.
The five-year tab is $62.9 million for all forms of environmental remediation for immigration-related damage across southeast Arizona, including $23 million for the first year.
Sun staff writer Juana Gyek contributed to this report.