TIJUANA – Friday, Sept. 29, 2006| The vans and buses sped down the potholed highway, stopping for nothing.

Flak-jacketed policemen carrying shotguns and automatic rifles ran interference, forcing cars off the road, keeping traffic and indifferent pedestrians at bay. With lights flashing and sirens blaring, the convoy screamed past graffiti-covered walls, overflowing junkyards and rocky, unpaved dirt roads.

An ambulance trailed behind the convoy. Just in case, an organizer said.

All this to get a group of biologists, land planners and California state officials to a ribbon-cutting ceremony in San Bernardo, a poor neighborhood on an innocuous Tijuana hillside, where many homes are made of garage doors and other scraps.

The trip was nearly canceled because of the violence flaring in Tijuana after drug cartel kingpin Francisco Javier Arellano Felix’s recent capture. More than a dozen people – including several police officials and one American – have been killed in the city this month. The U.S. State Department has cautioned travelers about venturing into Tijuana.

The California Biodiversity Council, a group of state officials from natural resource agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and California State Parks, had planned a day-long tour through Tijuana to examine environmental challenges that plague the California-Baja California region.

They were supposed to first get an up-close look at rampant Mexican growth between Tecate and Tijuana, which threatens to sever centuries-old animal migration corridors. Then they were off to Los Laureles Canyon in Tijuana, where winter rainfalls send trash, raw sewage and silt coursing down into the Tijuana Estuary, slowly choking the sensitive wetland.

But security concerns shortened their trip and kept a few San Diego Association of Governments officials from crossing the border. The buses darted in only for a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the canyon. Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon joined them to celebrate the groundbreaking of an environmentally friendly housing development project.

While children danced on playground equipment the council donated, police and well-dressed bodyguards kept a watchful lookout over the crowd of more than 250.

The abbreviated trip Wednesday opened a window into the difficulties of addressing environmental issues in the border region. While the United States and Mexico share common environmental challenges along the border, they also share fundamental differences: laws and language, culture and customs.

“It really just shows how difficult it is to work on an international border,” says Janet Fairbanks, the SANDAG senior regional planner who organized the biodiversity council meeting. “We have these complexities for a meeting, but there are folks that every single day they’re dealing with this, doing business on the border. It definitely is a factor when we’re looking at economic issues on the border.”

More political challenges along the border exist beyond the drug-fueled violence. U.S. immigration policy, the proposed border fence and planned lining of the All-American Canal have all strained and complicated environmental issues along the border.

Baja California state officials refused to sign an agreement to work on biodiversity issues with their California counterparts, Fairbanks says, because of disagreements over water that will be conserved from paving the canal, which runs between Yuma and Calexico.

And then there is the fundamental difference: Resources. Money. Mexico’s gross domestic product per capita – a common measure of a country’s wealth – is four times lower than in the United States.

“Our two countries are in two different places,” says Mike White, San Diego director of the Conservation Biology Institute, which is working to preserve open space along the border. “The U.S. is fortunate enough to be in a position to focus resources on large-scale conservation. That’s not really the case for Mexico.”

It is often difficult to convince people that the Mexican border deserves the country’s limited conservation funding, says White, who has worked to develop the Las Californias Binational Conservation Initiative, which aims to conserve links between large chunks of protected land in California and undeveloped land in Mexico.

“When you talk about conservation in Mexico, you’re talking about a place that has rainforests,” he says. “Eastern Tijuana is competing with the Yucatan Peninsula for the resources that do exist. Making the case that the land here deserves attention is a challenge in itself.”

The wide-ranging differences create a policy gap along the border, says Paul Ganster, a San Diego State professor who leads the federal Good Neighbor Environmental Board, a committee that advises President Bush and Congress on border environmental issues.

Both California and Baja California need to take a more active role along the border, Ganster says, because it isn’t as much of a priority for either federal government.

“We really need some process to regularly bring to bilateral discussions the issues that affect both sides of the border,” Ganster says. “We live in the same bio-region. And yet these political boundaries – which exist for good purposes – add a layer of complexity in resolving some of our mutual issues.”

Some hope the California Biodiversity Council will focus attention on the border. Officials such as California State Parks director Ruth Coleman and Mike Pool, state director of the Bureau of Land Management, got an up-close look at the border. But a major question lingers: Will a tour and day-long meeting translate into action?

The group was scheduled to approve several action items Thursday, such as better signage for the Tijuana Estuary and its watershed and a bi-national committee to examine conservation opportunities on both sides of the border.

But major challenges remain in an area where southern U.S. beaches were closed for more than three months this year because of sewage-tainted Mexican runoff that coursed across the border.

Solutions to the border’s numerous environmental issues may exist, but they will require tenacity and follow-through from those who attended the council meeting, says Rick Van Schoik, a San Diego State professor who serves as director of the Southwest Consortium for Environmental Research and Policy.

“I think people still don’t have the idea that the border offers ideas to solve problems,” says Van Schoik, who participated in the meeting. “A lot of people, their blinders really end at borders.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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