Virtual Fence

by Josie Kohnert

Issues regarding the cultural and ecological security of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument prompted lawmakers to turn their attention to the southwest border of the United States and attempt to create a solution that ensures the wellbeing of the region.  The final plan consists of five miles of pedestrian fence, twenty six miles of vehicle barriers, and the added support of the virtual fence project—not to mention the increase in Border Patrol agents and tactical infrastructure.[1]  The virtual fence project—an increasingly popular element—is praised for its minimal impact on the physical environment but condemned for being an expensive and unreliable border security measure. 

A virtual fence is the composite of several different technological pieces.  High-tech surveillance towers—ranging from 40-120 feet tall based on terrain[2]—equipped with radar and video components monitor a range of roughly six miles and send a digital relay back to remote monitoring stations.  The combination of video equipment allows rangers to distinguish between human and animal life, and is more effective at night than traditional measures.  Consequently, the area that border patrol agents monitor at any given time expands considerably.

The benefits of a virtual fence are largely ecological, and—given the sensitivity of the Sonoran Desert—strongly recommend its use in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.  Due to the reduced building footprint, natural elements—such as animals, water, and plants—are able to cross the border and promote ecological health.  Additionally, the environmental impact assessment found no impact[3], making it an ideal solution to the ecological challenges of maintaining a border.

However, many problems also arose regarding the economic feasibility and flaws in performance of the virtual fence project. The pilot project not only cost $20 million to implement, but produced unsatisfactory results as well.[4]  Estimates for the total cost of constructing a virtual fence along the entirety of the US-Mexico border is estimated at $6.7 billion by its completion in 2014.[5]  Furthermore, lags in the relay between the towers and rangers occurred, and the mountainous terrain of the park interferes with the effectiveness of radar equipment.

Despite technical bugs in need of further tweaking, the virtual fence project is an exciting prospect for increasing the ecological health of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument without sacrificing national security.

Further Reading

Baiza Lee, Julie Rodriguez, and Frank Quimby. “Interior and Homeland Security Collaborate on Border Protection, Resource Conservation along US/Mexico Border”” Press Release. March 13, 2010. 

Banks, Leo. “Border Fence Benefits the Environment.” The Daily Caller. http://dailycaller.com/2010/10/04/border-fence-benefits-the-environment/ (accessed January 31, 2012). 

Dinan, Stephen. “Environmental Laws Put Gaps in Mexico Border Security.” Washington Times, November 16, 2009. 

Rotstien, Arthur H.­­ “Virtual Fence Construction in Arizona Put on Hold.” Border Wall in the News. http://borderwallinthenews.blogspot.com/2008/08/virtual-fence-construction-in-arizona.html (accessed April 10, 2012). 

Rotstien, Arthur H. “Feds Ready to Build Virtual Fence along Borders.” CNS News. http://cnsnews.com/news/article/feds-ready-build-virtual-fence-along-borders (accessed April 10, 2012).


[1] Lee Baiza, Julie Rodriguez, and Frank Quimby. “Interior and Homeland Security Collaborate on Border Protection, Resource Conservation along US/Mexico Border.” Press Release. March 13, 2010.

[2] Ibid

[3] Arthur H. Rotstien, “Virtual Fence Construction in Arizona Put on Hold” Border Wall in the News, http://borderwallinthenews.blogspot.com/2008/08/virtual-fence-construction-in-arizona.html (accessed April 10, 2012).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Arthur H. Rotstien. “Feds Ready to Build Virtual Fence along Border,” CNS News. http://cnsnews.com/news/article/feds-ready-build-virtual-fence-along-borders (accessed April 10, 2012).

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