Jim Peugh stands on a coastal mesa along the San Diego-Mexico border south of San Ysidro. He's straining through the wind to hear the call of the California gnatcatcher, an endangered bird living in the brush on the western slope.
"The gnatcatcher sounds like a cat meowing," he says.
The Baja California bird brush that makes up most of the gnatcatcher's habitat is also endangered, but you couldn't tell it from the way this mesa, known as Border Highlands, is peppered with ubiquitous sun-bleached trash and soiled clothes that travel west into Smuggler's Gulch.
But from the top of the next mesa to the west, this one called Spooner's, Peugh reveals the magnitude of a proposed border fence project that makes the garbage as relevant as roaches in a condemned hotel. He gestures across the existing border fence to a mountainous earthen bench and Tijuana's Avenue Internacional slashing through its middle.
"That's what they want to do to Border Highlands with the border fence," he says.
To complete a three-and-a-half-mile fence system connecting the ocean with a point west of Interstate 5, the U.S. government intends to cut nearly 2 million cubic yards of earth out of Border Highlands and Spooner's Mesa and pour it into Smuggler's Gulch. The installment is part of a greater 14-mile so-called "triple border fence" that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) wants to build from the base of the San Ysidro Mountains to the Pacific. Nine miles of the fencing project has already been built.
The last three and a half miles would run, east to west, from the International Wastewater Facility south of I-5 over "The Quarry," Border Highlands, Smuggler's Gulch, Spooner's Mesa, Goat Canyon, Bunker Hill, Lichty Mesa, Yogurt Canyon and, finally, Monument Mesa, where Friendship Circle, founded by former First Lady Pat Nixon as an international park for Mexicans and Americans to commune, is already split by a fence.
And this is all public land, consisting of overlapping parks, including Border Field State Park, Tijuana River National Estuarine Reserve and Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge, as well as other county and city plots.
Moreover, this is supposed to be protected land-much of the area falls under the Multiple Species Conservation Plan, a multi-jurisdictional don't-tread-on-me overlay for endangered and threatened species.
The enhancement of border protection in the coastal range has turned the area into an aggregate juxtaposition of man and nature, of U.S. border policy and state environmental law, that has all sides arguing that they know what's best.
Peugh, chairman of the San Diego Audubon Society's Conservation Committee, believes filling in Smuggler's Gulch is an unnecessary component to border protection that will not only destroy the gnatcatcher's habitat, but will also ruin the downstream Tijuana Estuary, a riparian habitat for native plants and endangered birds.
"We talk about wanting more public parks," Peugh said, "and here we have a real live river valley. That's why we are so intent on protecting it. But I'm probably biased-it's about protecting this area for my grandchildren."
Customs and Border Protection, a division of the new Department of Homeland Security, stands by its plan, saying the fences will protect the area from pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and that they will replant the Baja California bird brush lost at Border Highlands.
And CBP reminds opponents that damage to the area is beside the point: the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA) contains a mandate to build the fence, and those three and a half miles are the last stretch of the border still unprotected by triple border fencing. IIRIRA also includes a waiver that allows the government to ignore the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act
Enter the California Coastal Commission, the state agency charged with managing conservation and development along the coast. Coastal Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas reminds CBP that he is obligated by the state Coastal Act of 1976 to protect the environment in what's known as the coastal zone. "It the law," he says. "They just don't get it."
In September, Coastal Commission support staff told CBP that the fence plan, especially the Smuggler's Gulch fill project, is too dangerous for protected wildlife. But the 12-member Coastal Commission suspended its vote on the project to give CBP a chance to respond.
The CBP response is detailed in a new commission staff report, released last Friday, that says the fence project is still too harmful. The Coastal Commission will vote on the plan at a Feb. 18 hearing at the Lodge at Torrey Pines. At the meeting, Douglas will make it clear to commissioners that he does not support it.
"We think that they can provide adequate protection and a secure border without trashing the environment," he says. "But this notion that people will feel more secure with three fences doesn't make sense."
The project design envisions a patrol road, at least 130-feet wide, separating the first two fences. A tertiary fence will follow 20 feet behind. The project will be adorned with lights, sensors and surveillance technology.
Border Patrol agents should be able to safely U-turn at high speeds between the first two fences, Border Patrol spokesman R.C. Martinez says, and the third fence will protect them from attacks on the U.S. side, though it is not clear if agents have been attacked from behind in the past. (An order from CBP's Washington headquarters to stop discussing the fence with a CityBeat reporter precluded clarification.)
But to lay the fence across Smuggler's Gulch, CBP says it will have to cut 1.85 million cubic yards out of Border Highlands and Spooner's Mesa and push it into the canyon to build a 160-foot-tall, 800-foot-wide land bridge, or berm, spanning the half-mile canyon.
Conservationists fear the cut-and-fill will increase erosion in the gulch that will steadily flood the Tijuana Estuary with sediment and wipe out the habitat. Already, the earth on these slopes and in the canyon is raw with U.S. Border Patrol service roads. The roads are also deeply eroded, and are accessible only by four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Idling down the western slope of Border Highlands, Peugh notes that the banks are eroded into oddly uniform columns. At points along the existing fence, the earth below is worn away-evidence, he says, that excavated soil is more vulnerable to erosion.
"And they say their berm won't erode," he says cynically.
In a review of the September Coastal Commission staff report, CBP-backed by U.S. Border Patrol, the Army Corps of Engineers and an erosion study by Michael Baker Jr. Inc.-stated that the cut-and-fill plan will include "expertly designed erosion and sediment control features," and is the least destructive way to comply with IIRIRA.
The plan includes two 10-foot-by-10-foot, square drainage pipes underneath the berm, protected by porous gates that will allow passage of water and sewage, but not people or debris.
However, an existing gate intended to halt border crossers in Smuggler's Gulch is jammed open by mounds of trash, the southern slope from Avenue Internacional to the opening is deeply grooved from erosion, and the occasional car tire or household appliance waits in the ravine to ride the next rainstorm to the estuary.
Friday's Coastal Commission staff report recommends scrapping the Smuggler's Gulch fill and, instead, creating a sediment basin in the canyon. However, Mark Delaplaine, the commission's federal consistency supervisor, says CBP did agree to consider building a sediment basin if the cut-and-fill worsens sedimentation in the estuary.
And though CBP also agreed to narrow the corridor through Border Highlands to decrease impact on the habitat, Delaplaine says he still has concerns about the scope of the cut-and-fill project.
CBP abandoned a similar cut-and-fill plan for Goat Canyon to the west, saying a gap in the fence system at that location would not "substantially jeopardize enforcement and deterrence." Instead, the Coastal Conservancy-a state agency that protects land by buying it-is building a sediment basin for the canyon. Peugh doesn't understand why a similar approach couldn't be adopted for Smuggler's Gulch.
To the northwest of the coastal range is the Tijuana Estuary, where the Tijuana River pours into the ocean and saltwater swims against the fresh water stream to create a mineral-rich brackish marsh where threatened and endangered birds-such as the California least tern, western snowy plover, light-footed clapper rail, least bells vireo and Belding's savannah sparrow-frolic, mate and feed.
But the idea of sedimentation as an imminent threat to their habitat is hard to believe. That is, until you've been to the Tijuana Estuary and stood on the service road that splits the marsh at its eastern end. The road is a sediment dam, illustrating the disparity between what the estuary is and what it might become. Flora dense and tall on the east side, sprawling and relaxed on the west.
Invading plant species carried over from Mexico by flooding are rooted on the east side. Caster bean and freeway ice plant reach 10 or 15 feet high and strangle the native species.
On the west side, more than 15 native plants grow unconstrained, including Baja California bird brush, coastal sage brush, cordgrass and pickleweed, which the Belding's savannah sparrow feeds on.
Overhead, a northern harrier, a small hawk recognized by a white mark above the tail feathers, bests another male in a show of low-swooping dives on the east side, before he flies west to hunt. In the brush, the common black phoebe chirps, "Ti-wee, Ti-wee."
In the distance to the south, Lichty and Monument mesas loom beneath a bullfighting arena and a cluster of mansions in Tijuana. Peugh jokes that the owners of the mansions probably have enough armed protection to put the Border Patrol to shame. "No one can cross the border there," he declares.
Turning to walk away from the estuary, Peugh's feet sink to his ankles in the top layer of silt. Everywhere, sediment is woven with flotsam, like milk in coffee. A child's sandal spits out from under an earthmover cruising by frighteningly quick for a machine its size, and Peugh constantly resists picking up trash. "I'd be here forever," he says.
The Hollister Pump Station is Peugh's last stop. The facility forces water and sewage from the Smuggler's Gulch wash to the wastewater facility. Peugh points out where the wash often pushes debris and sewage over Hollister Road toward the Tijuana River. On the far side of the wash, closest to the river, a decaying refrigerator rests in the dry bed until another flood can carry it away.
The next big storm could begin Feb. 18, when the Coastal Commission will either reject the border fence and risk a standoff with the federal government or approve the project and await lawsuits from environmentalists.
"This is a case that could go to court regardless of outcome," Delaplaine says.
(At press time on Tuesday, the Sierra Club, San Diego BayKeeper and others announced plans to file suit over the project.)