Sunday, October 16, 2011

Bill before U.S. House would give Border Patrol unprecedented powers in Olympic National Park

Peninsula Daily News
October 16, 2011
By Paul Gottlieb

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Border Patrol could build roads in Olympic National Park and other wilderness areas without approval from the federal departments of Interior and Agriculture under legislation that has survived a key congressional committee's vote.

House leadership is deciding if the National Security and Lands Protection Act, approved 26-17 on Oct. 5 by the House Committee on Natural Resources, will go to the House floor for a vote, committee spokeswoman Crystal Feldman said Friday.

The bill, HR 1505, would grant broad new powers to U.S. Customs and Border Protection — the umbrella agency for the Border Patrol — within 100 miles of the northern border with Canada and southern border with Mexico.

Under the provisions of the bill, the agency would 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).”

It allows the agency to waive the Endangered Species Act and three dozen other mostly environmental laws within that zone and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which guarantees access to religious sites and protection of “sacred objects.”

Republican U.S. Rep. Bob Bishop of Utah sponsored HR 1505 and chairs the Natural Resources Committee.

George Behan, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, whose constituency includes Clallam and Jeff­erson counties, said Friday that it's unlikely the bill will gain any traction.

“It's way too broad and is not expected to move anywhere other than [Bishop's] committee,” Behan said.

But it's created somewhat of a stir on the North Olympic Peninsula, where increased Border Patrol staffing and patrols sparked the formation of Port Angeles-based Stop the Checkpoints, which has picketed the site of a new, under-construction $5.7 million Border Patrol station two miles east of downtown Port Angeles.

“To me, this is like using the fear of immigration and terrorism to do away with environmental protections as part of the overall right-wing movement,” Lois Danks, the group's organizer, said last week.

Supporters of the proposed law said the legislation would put the Border Patrol on a level playing field with drug smugglers and human traffickers on the nation's southern border who have no regard for laws, environmental or otherwise, and can act with impunity in such regions as designated wilderness areas, where motorized transport is forbidden.

“Cartels have figured out that the Border Patrol can't maintain a routine presence on federal lands,” said Melissa Subbotin, spokeswoman for Bishop.

The bill seeks to achieve “operational control” over international land borders.

It would prevent the secretary of the interior, who manages Olympic National Park and other national parks, and the secretary of agriculture, who manages national forests — including Olympic National Forest — from blocking U.S. Customs and Border Protection's efforts to “achieve operational control” over a 100-mile band south of the Canadian border.

Operational control was defined by U.S. Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher, testifying Feb. 15 before the House Committee on Homeland Security, as “the ability to detect, identify, classify and then respond to and resolve illegal entries along our U.S. Borders.”

To that end, the Border Patrol would be allowed to conduct vehicle patrols of designated wilderness areas, where motorized vehicles are otherwise banned.

The Border Patrol now has vehicle access to existing roads in Olympic National Park, said Blaine Sector spokesman Richard Sinks.

Sinks said the Border Patrol maintains “situational awareness” of wilderness areas by working with the Forest Service, Department of Interior and county, state and tribal law enforcement agencies and “is continually analyzing the threat to and through the wilderness park areas.”

But what about building a road in Olympic National Park where there isn't one now?

Border Patrol spokeswoman Kerry Rogers said the agency does not comment on pending legislation.

And park officials have not yet studied the bill and its implications, park spokeswoman Barb Maynes said Friday.

The law would open up to Border Patrol vehicular activity to the 44,258-acre Buckhorn Wilderness Area, which abuts Olympic National Park's eastern boundary, and the 166,825-acre Brothers Wilderness Area in Olympic National Forest in Jefferson County — where motorized vehicle traffic is not allowed.

That doesn't sit well with the Washington Wilderness Coalition, whose conservation director called the legislation “an extreme kind of overreaction.”

“It's like heating your house with a flamethrower,” Tom Uniack said, fearful the legislation could open the door to more widespread abandonment of “cornerstone environmental laws.”

The legislation was not aimed at activities on the U.S.-Canadian border, Subb­otin said.

“It was written specifically to address issues along the southern border, but it's hard to exclude the northern border,” she said.

“This would remove the checkerboard pattern of where the Border Patrol can and can't patrol.”

Funding for such projects as roads also could be an issue.

Congress “would still have to appropriate funds” for road-building projects, Feldman said.

“The only reason they would construct roads is if there is criminal activity going on,” she added.

“They would need to ensure operational control at the border if there is evidence of criminal activity.”

Asked how likely it is that the Border Patrol would waive environmental and land management laws along the northern border, Feldman said, “It's an unlikely site for large-scale illegal entry.”

If passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama, the law would sunset in five years.

“That does not change my concerns at all,” Uniack said.

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