U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is responsible for securing our nation’s borders while facilitating lawful travel and trade. Along these borders are diverse ecosystems with thousands of wildlife and plant species, some endangered or threatened.
Federal agencies are required to evaluate the potential impacts of their projects on the environment, including biological and cultural resources, for all of their actions. While fulfilling its mission, CBP has continued to prioritize the protection of natural and cultural resources in its operations.
For over ten years LMI has supported CBP in evaluating the potential impacts to biological and cultural resources along the borders and developing policies, procedures, and best management practices for each area. This documentation outlines how to conduct CBP’s actions while also protecting and limiting impacts to water quality, biological resources including endangered species, air quality, and cultural resources in compliance with multiple federal laws and regulations.
How Customs and Border Protection Safeguards Ecosystems
It is critical to maintain the areas along the border so border agents can do their jobs. To facilitate the movement of border agents, the agency must undertake many maintenance projects, such as managing vegetation or maintaining infrastructure, including roads, helicopter pads, towers, and boat ramps.
To do this work, CBP partners with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), especially in areas where national wildlife refuges re located along the border. Every few months, LMI trains staff, including agents and maintenance contractors, in the identification and application of best management practices (BMPs). Team members from USFWS voluntarily attend these trainings to answer questions about the wildlife and other resources protected within their refuge. They have expertise in many practical solutions for getting work done while also protecting the resources.
Some examples of inter-agency collaboration in the Laredo and Rio Grande Valley sectors include the following:
- Protecting nesting sites when mowing—In the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, hundreds of bird species nest from March to September. Vegetation control, such as mowing and tree trimming in association with CBP actions of road maintenance, requires careful consideration of nesting sites. In advance of conducting any project, surveyors identify the locations of nesting sites and flag off buffer areas around the active nests. The processes, sizes, applicable tools, and timing of these surveys and buffer areas were established through coordination with USFWS and used to develop BMPs. The BMPs include such actions as using quieter equipment, for example pole saws instead of chain saws.
- Protecting mussels when opening a boat ramp—In Laredo, sedimentation had built up behind pylons under a bridge, limiting access to and use of a boat ramp. The area was a mussel sanctuary. In collaboration with Texas Parks and Wildlife and USFWS, CBP surveyed the area and removed the species that would be impacted. Protected species were relocated to a pre-approved site near the project area and invasive species were removed. Every aspect of this project followed BMPs from the original documentation.
- Evaluating the environmental impacts of a horse stable—CBP agents rely on horses in this area. When the managers of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge learned of the agents’ need for a facility to house and train their horses, they invited the agents to use an existing barn facility, called the Morillo Banco Horse Facility, while working together to evaluate the potential environmental impacts.
Successful Ecosystem Protection Comes from Strong Relationships
Customs and Border Protection has done a great job of ensuring that environmental planning is included from the very beginning of each project. This gives the greatest amount of time to arrange for permits and specialists. The program manager knows from inception the project the timeline, budget, and requirements for completing the necessary environmental processes—there are no surprises. When these considerations are an afterthought, there are schedule delays and budget issues.
LMI facilitates these relationships by conducting training and coordination with the various agencies involved in each project. The relationships developed through this process supports open dialog for each of the projects. There is an ongoing discussions about how to best implement practices and ensure everyone involved is invested. The ongoing discussions also inform improvements to the training and development of BMPs.
Creative Problem Solving Comes from Understanding the Big Picture
When it’s time to fix a pothole in a road along the border, it might seem like a simple task; however, there are many steps that need to be completed to ensure compliance with the applicable laws and regulations are complete before the action can be conducted. If a nesting site is nearby, BMPs must be followed. Potential impacts to biological and cultural resources must be identified, evaluated, and mitigated. By following best management practices documentation, Customs and Border Protection can fulfill its mission in the most efficient way while also upholding federal laws and regulations.
Assisting Customs and Border Protection in this work requires expertise in environmental science and policy, federal laws and regulations, cultural resources, international agreements, and project management. It takes complex ideas and makes them practical. There is an immediate payoff in terms of the safety of our borders and protecting environmental resources.
Audra Upchurch is a program manager in the Infrastructure, Energy, and Environment Management group at LMI. Throughout her career she has managed and supported numerous National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and environmental planning projects ranging from large-scale environmental impact statements to small environmental assessments. Audra has supported the Department of Homeland Security, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Office of National Labs, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Department of Energy, Federal Aviation Administration, and various state and commercial organizations. She has a BS in forestry with a minor in environmental science, a graduate certificate in natural resources, and an MS in natural resources, all from Virginia Tech. She is currently pursuing an MBA in business administration, also from Virginia Tech. Audra is also certified as a Project Management Professional by the Project Management Institute and a Certified Environmental Professional by the Academy of Board Certified Environmental Professionals.