BUENOS AIRES NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Arizona – The number of illegal immigrants and drug smugglers crossing through this magnificent national parkland in southern Arizona has "decreased significantly" in the last four years, park officials say.
But there's a dark cloud to this silver lining: To make it happen, the refuge had to close a sliver of this slice of heaven to the quarter-billion American taxpayers who own it -- essentially creating a no-man's-land on which only drug smugglers, gun-runners, human traffickers and the Border Patrol agents who track them down dare to tread.
And with rival Mexican drug gangs gunning each other down less than 50 miles away, the chance that the closed portion of the wildlife refuge will reopen in the foreseeable future appears to be between slim and none. For the time being, officials say, a small portion of this public land will be closed to the public.
In 2006, the refuge manager at the time, Mitch Ellis, saw that the smugglers and drug-runners were winning, and his solution was to close 3,500 acres of this 118,000-acre natural habitat. He cited increased violence in the area due to “border-related” activities, including assaults on law enforcement officers and migrants, as the reason for the closure.
Back then, says Sally Gall, the park's acting refuge manager, it was estimated that as many as 4,000 people a day were crossing illegally into the U.S. from Mexico, tramping across public land that's home to nearly 330 species of animals and hosts up to 40,000 visitors annually.
“We had probably the most ever immigration traffic in this area,” Gall told FoxNews.com during an exclusive tour of the refuge on Thursday. “It was incredible. There was a lot of concern for public safety.”
The signs went up on Oct. 3, 2006. A year later, construction of an 18-foot-tall pedestrian fence was completed, replacing the porous vehicle barriers and barbed-wire fences that had stood there before. This public area was officially closed to the public. The result, says Gall, is that the number of border-crossers has been reduced to a “couple hundred” a day -- or roughly 1/20th of what it was.
But the 3,500 acres will remain off-limits for the foreseeable future, she said – despite what she calls an “incredible response” of negative feedback that followed recent reports surrounding the closure. The 3,500-acre parcel is only 3 percent of the entire refuge, Gall said, so she prefers to err on the side of caution.
“It doesn’t have a great impact to visitor use on the refuge,” she said. “Is it something worth opening? We don’t feel like it is right now.” “There isn’t a timeline,” she said. “With the fluctuations of border activity, with immigrants coming through, as well as Border Patrol activity and now the proposed National Guard, it makes sense to wait this out and see what happens.”
That doesn't sit well with Zack Taylor, a retired U.S. Border Patrol agent with more than 26 years on the job, who said he considered the closure a concession of U.S. land to Mexican drug cartels and human smuggling operations. If you're going to close down 3,500 acres inside America, he said, you might as well close down the entire border.
“They’ve known for years that this was an escalating problem and that it was going to grow and become a larger problem,” Taylor, a member of the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers, told FoxNews.com. “The anger is that [federal authorities] have intentionally made it more dangerous by not putting enough people down there to do the job.”
He said U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials were essentially creating an “ad hoc amnesty” by not closing the entire U.S.-Mexico border, including the 3,500-acre parcel on the Buenos Aires refuge. “The United States government is giving it away,” he said. “They’re intentionally not doing their job and not enforcing the law. It becomes a crime.”
Another retired U.S. Border Patrol agent who asked not to be identified due to consulting work he does in the area, questioned the accuracy of the sharp decline in immigrant activity in the area.
“They’re painting a picture that the border is under control,” said the former agent, who retired in 2007 after 30 years along the border. “And it’s not ... not at all.”
During a tour of the closed area, roughly one mile north of the Mexican border, FoxNews.com spotted evidence of illegal immigrant activity in the form of roughly a dozen large water containers just across the fence on Mexican soil, adjacent to a drainage pipe on the U.S. land.
Wayne Lackner, special operations supervisor for the U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, confirmed that the water containers appeared to be evidence of recent border-crossings.
“It comes in cycles,” Lackner said. “Sometimes it could be broad daylight you can have activity there, or it could be during hours of darkness.”
Still, Lackner said, activity has decreased to a level where his agency could “probably have some input” into whether the 3,500 acres should be reopened to the public. He said citizens should feel safe near the area now.
“From a public standpoint, I would see no problem if people recreated down there,” he said. “I think it’s safe. The majority of [illegal immigrants], you know, they’re not going to bother you. If you see ‘em, just make sure to call somebody and watch where you’re at. It’s really no different than anywhere else.”
But that's not necessarily so, say nearby ranchers who painted an entirely different picture of the activity in the region. Tom Kay, 68, whose Jarillas Ranch features more than four miles of border fence and shares its western boundary line with the Buenos Aires refuge, estimated that up to 400 illegal immigrants walk onto his 15,000-acre land every day.
“The ones that get to Tucson probably came through here,” Kay told FoxNews.com. “This is where it all begins.” He said he's seeing fewer border-crossers than in previous years, due in part to surveillance towers that were built near his property.
But after years of never locking his door or removing keys from vehicles, Kay has found it necessary to change his ways.
“I gotta lock the barn up now,” he said. “If I don’t, I wake up and find people in the hay."