U.S. Parkland Bordering Mexico, Shut Since 2006, Remains Off-Limits As Violence Escalates

Published June 17, 2010

| FoxNews.com

Four years after federal officials quietly surrendered thousands of acres of America's border to Mexican drug gangs and illegals, there still are "no plans to reopen" the taxpayer-owned national park lands.

Roughly 3,500 acres of taxpayer-funded government land in Arizona have been closed to U.S. citizens since 2006 due to safety concerns fueled by drug and human smuggling along the Mexican border, according to a statement posted on the website for the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.

The section of land -- about 3 percent of the 118,000-acre refuge -- has been closed since Oct. 6, 2006, when "there was a marked increase in violence along the border due to human and drug trafficking," according to the statement released Wednesday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The closed area extends north from the international border for roughly three-quarters of a mile; a notice of the area's closure has been posted on the refuge's website since 2006. The remainder of the refuge remains open to the public for recreational activities.

"At this time there are no plans to reopen this southernmost 3/4-mile portion of the Refuge," the statement continued. "However, since 2006 the Refuge has experienced a significant decline in violent activity in the area thanks to ongoing cooperation between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Customs and Border Protection."

In a statement to FoxNews.com on Thursday, the director of law enforcement for the Bureau of Land Management said the agency takes visitor and employee safety very seriously.

"We have posted these signs to inform visitors to this part of Southern Arizona of the ongoing public safety issues in this area," William Woody said in a statement. "We are committed to working with everyone engaged with public land management to ensure that all visitors and users have a safe experience on our public lands."

Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu told Fox News on Wednesday that violence against law enforcement officers and U.S. citizens has increased in the past four months, further underscoring the need to keep the area off-limits to Americans.

"It's literally out of control," Babeu said. "We stood with Senator McCain and literally demanded support for 3,000 soldiers to be deployed to Arizona to get this under control and finally secure our border with Mexico."

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials have warned visitors in the area to beware of heavily armed drug smugglers and human traffickers. In a statement posted at the time of the closure, Mitch Ellis, manager of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, said conditions in the zone reached a point where public use of the area was not prudent.

"The [refuge] has been adversely affected by border-related activities," Ellis' statement read. "The international border with Mexico has also become increasingly violent. Assaults on law enforcement officers and violence against migrants have escalated. Violence on the Refuge associated with smugglers and border bandits has been well-documented."

Security is also a top concern in other parcels of public land in Arizona. 

Dennis Godfrey, a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management's Arizona office, said roughly a dozen signs were posted earlier this month along the Sonoran Desert National Monument advising that travel in the area is not recommended due to "active drug and human" smuggling.

"It is a corridor for smugglers of all types," Godfrey said on Thursday.

The monument, which contains more than 487,000 acres of desert landscape, is roughly 35 miles southwest of Phoenix. Bureau of Land Management officials are encouraging travelers to use public lands north of Interstate 8, which runs from San Diego to Casa Grande, Ariz.

"Visitors may encounter armed criminals and smuggling vehicles travelling at a high rate of speed," the signs read. "Stay away from trash, clothing, backpacks and abandoned vehicles."

FoxNews.com's Joshua Rhett Miller contributed to this report.

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http://www.foxnews.com/us/2010/06/17/portion-arizona-wildlife-refuge-closed-safety-concerns/