San Antoanio Express-News
October 31, 2011
by Jason Buch
Both sides of a debate over a proposed law giving the Border Patrol more access to protected lands say they're trying to do what's right for the environment.
The National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act would waive laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air Act on federal lands within 100 miles of the border, affecting protected areas such as Big Bend National Park.
Environmentalists say the law could contribute to the decline of habitat for animals such as the endangered ocelot and jaguarundi, small wildcats whose range extends into South Texas. Proponents of the bill say restricting Border Patrol activity in federally protected borderlands just creates lanes for smugglers, who have no regard for the environment.
The act moved out of a House committee last month. Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate.
The bill by U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, allows the Border Patrol to build roads and other infrastructure on federally protected lands by waiving more than two dozen environmental and historical regulations. Agents are inhibited in some places by not being able to move freely through federal lands, said Shawn Moran, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union representing agents.
“The amount of trash and damage illegals are causing far outweighs any damage that Border Patrol agents would do,” Moran said. “Our position is, if federal agencies or state agencies say the Border Patrol can't go through a certain area, then the cartels or the smugglers are going to find out about that and exploit it, and it's going to do more damage to that area.”
Rosalinda Huey, a spokeswoman for the Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley, said the agency regularly works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, ensuring that it has access to protected lands.
In South Texas, the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge would be affected. Those are important stopovers for migratory birds, said Scott Nicol, co-chairman of the Sierra Club's Borderland Team.
It's also important that the limited habitat left for the ocelot and jaguarundi be protected, he said. The cats rely on small strips of vegetation along the river to travel between larger pieces of habitat.
“The big issue is just that (the Border Patrol) should be operating within the rule of law,” Nicol said. “It's kind of absurd to say that to enforce immigration laws ... they can violate any other law they want to.”
Nicol said he sees the bill more as an attempt to erode environmental regulations than to secure the border.
“These bills are not even about border security, because these are things the Border Patrol has not even asked for,” he said. “These are more generalized attacks on environmental regulation. They're basically just using border security as a convenient excuse because the average person says, ‘Do whatever you want to secure the border.'”
But Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, said the bill was amended to only affect federal lands, limiting its impact on environmental regulations.
“By stopping the illegal activity along the border, we will protect American lives and preserve wilderness areas for future generations to enjoy,” Smith said in a statement.
Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, a Democrat from Mercedes whose district includes some of the areas affected, said he'd need to see more evidence that the bill was needed before voting for it.
“I think we can allow the Border Patrol to do its work and at the same time protect our environment and our rare animals such as the jaguarundi, the ocelot and our migrating birds in deep South Texas,” Hinojosa said in a statement.