Wednesday, July 13, 2011

SCC opposes move to back DHS environmental waiver

Nogales International
July 12, 2011
by Jonathan Clark

A proposal for the upcoming meeting of the National Association of Counties would see the organization support a bill that seeks to waive environmental laws on certain federal lands in the name of border security. But the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors is critical of the plan, and passed a resolution last week urging the association not to back it.

The pending legislation, known as the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act, or HR 1505, would exempt the Department of Homeland Security and its subordinate agencies from more than 30 environmental regulations on federal lands within 100 miles of any U.S. border or coastline.

The pending legislation, known as the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act, or HR 1505, would exempt the Department of Homeland Security and its subordinate agencies from more than 30 environmental regulations on federal lands within 100 miles of any U.S. border or coastline. A resolution sponsored by five county officials from Utah and Arizona would have the National Association of Counties (NACo) urge Congress to pass the measure during its annual conference starting July 15 in Portland, Ore.

But by a 2-1 vote, the local board of supervisors passed its own resolution on July 6 to oppose the move. Supervisor John Maynard, who introduced the resolution, said that among other problems, HR 1505 raises questions of fairness.

“If law enforcement in the state of Arizona, or for that matter in our county or sheriff’s department, has to follow regulations, then I feel the officers in the federal government should have to follow those same regulations,” he said.

As for the proposed NACo resolution, Maynard noted that is not sponsored by any official from a border county (the Arizona sponsors are from Maricopa and Navajo counties), and he said that 100 miles of regulation-free access is too much.

“A half-mile within the border, anybody can build a road and do what they need to do, and maybe that’s part of the environment that we need to sacrifice for the situation we’re in,” he said. “But I think 100 miles is really excessive.”

What’s more, Maynard said, federal authorities are already doing a good job within the current parameters.

“The Department of Homeland Security, I quite frankly think, has improved significantly the work they are doing on the U.S.-Mexico border,” he said.

Supervisor Rudy Molera joined Maynard in voting to oppose the NACo resolution.

“We have so much wildlife and plant life that is protected right near the border, and it’s critical that we take care of it,” Molera said.

Dissenting Supervisor Manuel Ruiz said he had mixed feelings. While he understands the importance of protecting the environment, he said, smuggling activity in protected areas is also causing a lot of environmental damage.

Ruiz also expressed concern that current regulations are hindering the Border Patrol’s law enforcement efforts.

The bill

According to HR 1505, “The Secretary of Homeland Security shall have immediate access to any public land managed by the Federal Government ... for purposes of conducting activities that assist in securing the border (including access to maintain and construct roads, construct a fence, use vehicles to patrol, and set up monitoring equipment).”

Under the current rules, the Department of Homeland Security must conduct environmental impact studies before building roads or other infrastructure on public lands (a 2008 waiver excuses DHS of this requirement for the purpose of building border fencing and related access roads). Protected wilderness areas – like the 7,420-acre Pajarita Wilderness in the Coronado National Forest, approximately 15 miles west of Nogales – are generally off limits to motorized vehicles, but a memorandum of understanding in place since 2006 allows law enforcement agencies such as the Border Patrol to use vehicles on protected lands if they are in the midst of a pursuit.

Otherwise, they need special permission from the managing agency to conduct vehicular patrols or set up surveillance equipment.

In a news release announcing HR 1505, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) and the bill’s four other sponsors, all Republicans, accused federal land managers of “using environmental regulations to prevent Border Patrol from accessing portions of the 20.7 million acres along the U.S. southern border and over 1,000 miles of the U.S.-Canada border.”

“As a result, our federal lands have become a highway open to criminals, drug smugglers, human traffickers and potentially terrorists,” the news release said. “This has led to escalated violence and also caused destruction of the environment.”

The U.S. Forest Service did not immediately respond to questions about its relationship with the Border Patrol on Coronado National Forest lands. But prepared testimony from Jim Pena of the U.S. Forest Service for a hearing Friday on HR 1505 said the 2006 memorandum had helped to increase interagency cooperation in the area.

“USFS has routinely and expeditiously approved requests by DHS for forward operating bases, fixed and mobile surveillance structures, and road maintenance in the Coronado National Forest,” his statement read.

Local voices

Dan Bell, who runs a cattle ranch west of Nogales and leases grazing land from the U.S. Forest Service, said he doesn’t think the Border Patrol has the access it needs to properly secure the area. He said an exemption from federal environmental law would help.

“The Border Patrol is just not able to get to the border and so to get the infrastructure that needs to be put in place, the exemptions are important,” Bell said.

Environmental restrictions, he said, “just add another process that they have to go through, and there’s a lot of paralysis involved in that. It just gets bound up in process and nothing gets accomplished – or it takes a very long time to get things accomplished.”

But Wendy Russell said she and the other members of her conservation group Patagonia Area Resource Alliance, or PARA, “don’t want to see the land and wildlife sacrificed in the impossible task to secure the border.”

“We also don’t want to see where we live turned into a war zone by Homeland Security,” she said, adding that an environmental waiver for DHS would set a “dangerous precedent.”

“What other exceptions will be next? It’s the top of a slippery slope,” Russell said.

“We can not protect our homeland by degrading it,” said Ben Lomeli, a volunteer with the group Friends of the Santa Cruz River, who called measures like HR 1505 and an expanded border fence “band-aids to the symptom of a much larger underlying problem.”

“We need to recognize that this border represents what is probably the steepest economic gradient in the world,” Lomeli said. “A comprehensive reform of immigration laws is the only sustainable solution.”

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