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Citizens as Environmental Stewards

Before new government policies are implemented on public lands by Federal government agencies, citizens have had a legal right to comment on the proposed actions. This process has both ensured public oversight over proposed government activities and provided additional input about the costs and benefits of intended government actions. The proposal by the Trump Administration to construct a border wall that bisects the Sonoran Desert ecosystem is an example of the kind of initiative that in the past has allowed citizens to comment on proposed changes on public lands before they are enacted.

In 2005, the U.S. Congress passed legislation that gave the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) authority to waive all federal, state, and local laws regarding border barrier maintenance, design and placement. Citizens thus no longer have the opportunity to comment on proposed changes. Ill-designed barriers that adversely impact the economies of border communities, public lands, and wildlife, are a likely outcome if citizen’s comments concerning proposed changes are no longer considered before decisions are made.

At the 5th Tri-National Sonoran Desert Symposium in March, 2018, Chairman of Friends of the Sonoran Desert (FSD) Roger McManus pressed for reopening channels of communication between private citizens and DHS concerning border barrier construction. FSD assembled a panel of representatives from the Border Patrol, the National Park Service, and the Tohono O’odham Nation for this discussion, and all were keen on finding ways to include citizen input in the management decisions that will affect them. Participants brainstormed about how DHS could solicit public comments about plans for new border barriers, despite no longer being legally obligated to do so.

The discussions were civil and constructive. Alternative procedures allowing citizen input will require considerable additional work to design and implement. FSD will continue to push for these changes and will follow up with government officials and citizen groups in the months ahead.

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