Thursday, April 15, 2010

Bill opens sensitive lands to BP agents

Arizona Daily Star
April 15, 2010
by Brady McCombs

Republican lawmakers in the U.S. House want to give Border Patrol agents total access to public lands where they currently must adhere to some restrictions.

The move is the latest fallout from the March 27 killing of longtime rancher Robert Krentz on his land northeast of Douglas.

The legislation would prohibit the Department of Interior from restricting Border Patrol activities on public lands. Currently, land managers can create rules regarding access to certain areas to protect land, wildlife or historical sites.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, justified the legislation based on the fact that the person who killed Krentz likely fled into Mexico through the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge.

The refuge is 17 miles east of Douglas on the Arizona-Mexico border.

At the 2,309-acre wildlife refuge, the Border Patrol is allowed to patrol on foot or on horseback, but its vehicle access is limited to emergencies and to administrative roads, according to a May 2009 letter from Benjamin Tuggle, U.S. Fish and Wildlife regional director, to Robert Gilbert, then the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector Chief.

San Bernardino refuge manager Bill Radke could not be reached for comment Wednesday. But rancher Wendy Glenn confirmed that those rules still exist. Her 15,000-acre ranch surrounds the refuge.

At a news conference in Washington, D.C., Bishop and other lawmakers accused federal land managers of “hiding behind the law” to place wilderness or endangered species ahead of border safety. “It’s unforgivable,” he said.

“The Border Patrol is not being allowed do their job,” Bishop said. “That has to change.”

But a spokesman for the Border Patrol agents union in Arizona said agents understand the reasons for the rules and work around them without a problem.

“I would definitely look and see if there are some restrictions that are too restrictive,” said Brandon Judd, vice president of Local 2544 of the National Border Patrol Council. “But to get rid of all restrictions, you would destroy the land.”

The Border Patrol used to have total access to the San Bernardino refuge but lost that privilege because agents were driving off-road and damaging the land, Glenn said.

The legislation would be “bad for the country,” and wouldn’t improve border security, Glenn said. San Bernardino refuge officials cooperate with the Border Patrol, she said.

“They aren’t impeding border security,” Glenn said. “They are working with them.”

The change in rules wouldn’t have made any difference the night Krentz was killed or during the search for his killer, Glenn said. The shooter was likely in Mexico by the time they found Krentz’s body.

“Having access to drive through the refuge wouldn’t have stopped it one way or another,” Glenn said.

The restrictions imposed on public lands are based on decades of bipartisan legislation and are crucial to protecting the land and wildlife, said Matt Clark, Southwest representative of Defenders of Wildlife.

The legislation perpetuates the myth that border security and natural resource protection are conflicting forces when the reality is that land managers are usually very helpful in border security efforts, he said.

This is not the first time legislators have attempted to give Border Patrol complete access to public lands, Clark said.

“It is a shame that they are using this unfortunate event as a springboard for introducing counterproductive legislation,” Clark said.

Kendra Barkoff, a spokeswoman for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, said federal land managers are committed to controlling the border by working with the Border Patrol.

During a two-day visit to Texas and Arizona last month, Salazar toured the border by helicopter and foot and was briefed by Border Patrol agents and land managers.

“Secretary Salazar believes that we can meet the twin goals of protecting our national security and our natural resources,” Barkoff said in an e-mail.

While the San Bernardino refuge is small, there are several other large public lands on Arizona’s border that would be impacted by the legislation. They include the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge southwest of Tucson and the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Southwestern Arizona.

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