At Large

Habitat for Terrorism

Tom Ridge is no match for the gnatcatcher.

By 2.22.04

Send to Kindle

LOS ANGELES -- The last three-and-a-half miles of the Western end of the U.S.-Mexico border is a stretch of rough country pocked with canyons, mesas and other natural wonders in an undeveloped area -- a rarity in Southern California -- that runs right up to the water's edge. Admirers laud it as a place to embrace nature, and don't get them started on its ecological value.

But one man's beauty is another hombre's route to relatively easy, illegal entry into the U.S. That final stretch of border near the Pacific Ocean includes a half-mile ravine known as Smuggler's Gulch. As the name implies, it is a well-worn and difficult-to-protect gateway into America for those who'd rather not bother to fill out paperwork.

Smuggler's Gulch is tempting for border jumpers because it requires only negotiating a few foothills and wading through a marsh. Once on the other side, a nearby highway presents easy access to U.S. public transportation. By contrast, crossing into the country further inland presents higher hurdles. It requires a three-day walk that includes mountains and unforgiving desert land -- as hot at 120 degrees in the middle of summer.

IN ORDER TO PLUG this corridor of northbound human traffic, the Department of Homeland Security is pushing a plan to fill the gulch with 2.1 million cubic yards of dirt and construct additional fences along the final section of the border.

The issue has spiraled beyond mere illegal gate crashing. Homeland Security has determined, apparently, that this gulch is an inviting entrance for terrorists who would rather not bother with official checkpoints. They may wish to avoid being checked against watch lists, or, worse, plan to drag contraband weapons -- a shoulder-held rocket launcher, for instance -- into the U.S.

The crossing not only allows would-be terrorists access to the continental U.S., it is also close to important Navy bases in San Diego. This may be behind Navy Secretary Gordon England's concerns over the "unnecessary security risk" created by leaky borders.

ENTER THE CALIFORNIA Coastal Commission, an unelected 12-member board. On February 18, the commissioners blocked the plan. They would rather protect an "environmentally sensitive habitat" that is home to three endangered birds -- one of them the gnatcatcher, a small songbird whose existence interrupts Marine amphibious assault training up the coast at Camp Pendleton -- than allow the federal government to secure the country's southern border.

The commission, which has a deserved reputation for belligerence toward property rights, was created to curb development in coastal areas. Its members are appointed by the California Assembly speaker, the state Senate Rules Committee and the governor. The commission's authority begins three miles out in the ocean and moves several miles inland, covering an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.

And the commission often exercises that authority with a viciousness that reminds some landowners of a bully kicking over sand castles. It both writes and enforces regulations; judicial overview of its decisions is limited.

Rodolphe Streichenberger is one who has experienced the commission and found it to be a "tyrannic" agency. His encounter involved an artificial marine habitat of tubes and tires he wanted to build about 300 yards off the Orange County coast. The commission refused to grant him a permit.

Streichenberger eventually beat the body in court, which was big news, but maybe not quite so big as what Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Charles Kobayashi discovered. He wrote that this "purportedly" executive agency is "answerable to no one in the executive" branch. And its members are in no way "directly answerable to the voters."

WHAT STREICHENBERGER WENT through is not uncommon for those who have to deal with the California Coastal Commission. It has long denied landowners permits to build on their own property unless they agree to provide public access to the beach. The U.S. Supreme Court declared the practice illegal in 1987, but that hasn't stopped the commission from forging on ahead. It still wants to force the landowners who gave in to the blackmail before the court made its decision to provide beach access.

Golden State residents created this bureaucracy when they approved a voter initiative in 1972. The legislature stuck them with it permanently four years later when it passed the California Coastal Act. Outsiders might figure that Californians would regret what they've done.

And a few do regret it: mostly those who have had their property rights trampled by the commission. But this is California, after all, where quaint notions of ownership are easily sidestepped by beautiful people more concerned with animal, vegetable, and mineral than their fellow man.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

K. Andrew Jackson is a writer in California.