May 1, 2012
by Tony Freemantle
Imagine sitting on a rock at Big Bend National Park gazing out over the Rio Grande at the Santa Elena Canyon on a clear day, Mexico so close you could reach out and touch it. Immemorial silence cloaks the soaring cliffs, broken only by the caw of a raven above and the rustle of the reeds in the river.
Then imagine the buzzy whine of a Customs and Border Protection four-wheeler patrolling the sandy banks, or the growl of a grader carving a road into the Chihuahuan Desert to a forward operating base, or a government helicopter bristling with surveillance equipment hovering overhead.
Hard to imagine?
A bill making its way through Congress would, in the interests of national security, bequeath to the Department of Homeland Security complete control of all federal lands in a coast-to-coast zone 100 miles south of the Canadian border and 100 miles north of the Mexican border from California to the Gulf of Mexico.
The bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah with strong Republican support, is being touted as a necessary step in securing the nation's borders. But it is also being roundly condemned as a thinly veiled attempt to "gut a century's worth" of environmental laws aimed at preserving public lands, historic sites and national monuments.
In essence, the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act gives DHS, or more specifically U.S. Customs and Border Protection, authority to build fences, roads and operating bases, to use aircraft and to install surveillance equipment and sensors in some of the most pristine, environmentally sensitive lands in the nation - including Big Bend and Guadalupe national parks and Padre Island National Seashore in Texas.
And to clear the way for its stewardship of public lands, the agency would be exempt from compliance with more than 30 environmental laws - among them the National Environmental Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.
The bill has cleared committees in the House and is on the calendar for a vote on the floor. There is not yet a companion bill in the Senate.
Bishop and the other sponsors, including Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, argue that CBP's mandate to secure the nation's borders is being "thwarted" by the need to consult with and obtain permission from federal land managers - chiefly the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture - before conducting operations.
"The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office has found that less than half of the U.S.-Mexico border is under the operational control of the Border Patrol," Smith said in a statement. "At the same time, the Obama Administration prevents the Border Patrol from accessing federal lands in the name of environmental preservation. Because the Border Patrol is prohibited from securing federal lands, drug smugglers and human traffickers trample the earth and terrorize communities."
Opponents, including the Department of the Interior, CBP and national environmental organizations, charge that the proposed legislation is an "overreach," since a 2006 memorandum of understanding between border security agencies and federal land mangers already establishes the framework for cooperation between them.
"This is a solution looking for a problem," said Dan Millis, borderlands program coordinator for the Sierra Club. "There is already a framework in place for Border Patrol to work with public land management. If Border Patrol doesn't even have to try to work with managers, we will see a huge proliferation of roads, forward operating bases and fences on public lands."
The Coalition of National Parks Retirees is more blunt. The legislation would "gut a century's worth of land protection" laws and open up "millions of pristine acres of national parks" to unregulated intrusion.
"It's a really, really unnecessary bill," said Joan Anzelmo, a former superintendent of the Colorado National Monuments and board member of the organization. "It's an incredible assault on our national parks."
In addition to Big Bend and Guadalupe parks in Texas, some of the other federal lands that fall within the 100-mile security zone, and hence under control of DHS, include Saguaro National Park in Arizona, Joshua Tree National Park in California, Olympic National Park in Washington, Glacier National Park in Montana, Boundary Waters Wilderness in Minnesota and Acadia National Park in Maine.
Bishop believes his bill will end a "turf war" between Border Patrol and federal land mangers who use environmental laws to block efforts to secure the nation's borders.
"What I want to do is get the Border Patrol what they need to secure the border," Bishop said, "and they tell me that what they need more than money and people is access. There are enormous swaths of public land that have effectively been ceded over to the drug cartels."
The DHS already has been granted waivers from a slew of environmental laws in order to build the controversial "fence" along certain sections of the U.S.-Mexico border, which environmentalists charge has already cause significant damage to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona and to the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge in South Texas.
Giving control of all lands within 100 miles of the borders to a single agency is unnecessary, they argue, and poses a significant danger.
"This is worse than misguided policy, although it is certainly misguided," said Kevin Dahl, the Arizona project manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. "It's a real danger to the parks because it means that the people who have made a career of public land management are not in control."