Thursday, June 21, 2012

Dems attack Bishop border security bill as ruse to gut protections

Salt Lake Tribune
June 19, 2012
by Thomas Burr

Washington • Border patrol agents would be able to legally bypass major environmental laws within 100 miles of America’s borders under Rep. Rob Bishop’s legislation passed by the House on Tuesday that brought a swift rebuke from Democrats and wilderness advocates.

On a nearly party-line vote, Bishop’s border security bill passed the House with a series of related measures, though it now heads to the Senate where prospects for passage aren’t as good.

Bishop pitched his bill as a way to shore up the porous borders abutting public lands where he says federal agents are being hamstrung in combatting illegal immigration by environmental laws protecting large tracts of land.

"The Border Patrol’s inability to routinely access the entire border region leaves us not only vulnerable to the trafficking of drugs but also potential terrorists and others who wish to harm our country," Bishop said in a statement after the vote. "With the passage of this legislation the Border Patrol will finally have the access necessary to help us achieve a truly secure border — a sovereign nation should have nothing less."

The bill, if it becomes law, would allow border patrol agents to bypass 16 federal laws in securing the border and apprehending illegal crossers, including the ability to use motorized vehicles in wilderness areas, build fences or install equipment.

Democrats and environmentalists termed Bishop’s bill a "ruse," arguing that Republicans’ goal was to undermine federal protections of clean air and water and treasured landscapes.

"Either they are using public concerns about immigration and drugs as a ruse to gut our nation’s environmental laws," said Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., "or they really do believe that we need to create a militarized, surveillance zone in which a paramilitary border patrol can be free of the laws that govern the rest of the nation."

Markey says a six-year-old agreement between the departments of Homeland Security, Agriculture and Interior is working well and those agencies have not requested any changes. That document allows agents to pursue border crossers into sensitive wilderness areas if the agents believe there is a danger to life or to national security.

Bishop, who heads a House subcommittee over public lands, has pushed this issue for years, claiming that federal agents are unable to chase down illegal immigrants or suspected drug runners because of locked fences on lands controlled by the Interior Department or U.S. Forest Service.

Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, called Bishop and fellow Republicans "cynical" for trying to exploit concern about security as a reason to undermine environmental laws that have stood for decades.

"This is not about immigration, this is not about border security, this is [about scrapping laws and rules] that the extremists in the Republican Party have wanted to rid themselves of for years," Grijalva said. "This is not about securing anything; this is about a gift to polluters."

The Wilderness Society and other groups called the bill’s passage an "overreach" that will hinder hunting, fishing, hiking and other recreational activities.

But the measure also had its supporters, including from the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers, which said it shows a "resounding message that the people of the United States are serious about establishing complete border security."

Bishop’s bill was one of 14 included in an omnibus measure that also included language to remove an expectation that a power company building hydropower plants in Spanish Fork Canyon would have to give the federal government the first $161 million in profits.

Even if the package of bills gets through the Senate, it could face a veto.

The White House signaled its opposition to the measures late Monday, saying specifically that Bishop’s bill would "thwart successful efforts by agencies to collaborate on border security while protecting our natural and cultural resources."

2013 Conference Advisory Board To Focus On Greatest Challenges and Solutions for Border Security

Press Release from the Border Security Expo:
June 21, 2012

WESTPORT, Conn., Jun 21, 2012 (BUSINESS WIRE) -- The 7th Annual Border Security Expo conference program will be developed by a group of top experts on the subject. The newly formed 2013 Conference Advisory Board is chaired by Jayson Ahern, currently Principal at The Chertoff Group and the former Acting Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. He will be joined by:

-- W. Ralph Basham, Partner, Command Consulting Group; former Commissioner, U.S. Customs and Border Protection; former Director, U.S. Secret Service

-- Michael A. Braun, Managing Partner, Spectre Group International; former Chief of Operations, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

-- Bobby Brown, Vice President, Homeland Security Solutions, Telephonics Corporation

-- Ronald S. Colburn, Treasurer, The Border Patrol Foundation; former National Deputy Chief, U.S. Border Patrol

-- Jay F. Nunamaker, Jr., Ph.D., P.E. Director, National Center for Border Security and Immigration at the University of Arizona

-- Chris Marzilli, President, General Dynamics, C4 Systems

-- Ben Reyna, former Director, U.S. Marshals Service, U.S. Department of Justice; Chief of Police (Retired) Brownsville, Texas

-- Brian Seagrave, Vice President, Raytheon Homeland Security, Raytheon

-- Julie Myers Wood, President, ICS Consulting; former Assistant Secretary, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

"It gives me great pleasure to serve as Chairman of the Border Security Expo Conference Advisory Board, working alongside such esteemed colleagues and industry leaders, including former commissioners, directors, university professors and industry leaders," said Ahern. "We all bring passion and different perspectives to this dynamic Board, and we all understand the challenges and opportunities in an ever-changing and complex landscape."

"This Board represents a distinguished group of the most knowledgeable and dedicated individuals from government to academia to industry, who will direct the development of what is unquestionably the most important conference on the subject of border security and facilitation in the world," said Paul Mackler, President & CEO of Eagle Eye Expositions, LLC, the company that produces Border Security Expo. "The composition of this Board assures that every critical issue from security to international commerce will be discussed and debated by leading experts on these topics."

"The Border Security Expo Conference Advisory Board is committed to developing a content rich conference with a preeminent faculty to address the thousands of local, state, federal and international law enforcers and policy-makers charged with protecting our borders, while keeping the flow of goods and services moving through our ports of entry facilitating international commerce," said John Moriarty, Vice President/Show Director, Border Security Expo.

The 2012 Border Security Expo sold out several months prior to the event, noting a 24 percent increase in exhibit space with a waiting list of more than 70 companies unable to participate. Attendance was up 21 percent with event participants from 40 states and 10 countries. The 2013 exhibit hall has been expanded to accommodate the increased demand for exhibit space. With more than nine months until the 2013 expo, it is already over 60 percent sold.

The Border Security Expo conference and exhibition focuses on issues of terrorism, drug smuggling, human trafficking and a technological and physical infrastructure that must be upgraded, heightened and enhanced. It provides opportunities to listen and learn about today's most complex security challenges and to help identify smart, cost effective security solutions that can combat current and future security threats facing our borders.

Border Security Expo is scheduled for March 12-13, 2013 at the Phoenix Convention Center, Phoenix, Arizona. The National Center for Border Security and Immigration at The University of Arizona will again serve as the Official Academic Organization for Border Security Expo.

For more information, visit

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

House OKs waiver of enviro laws at borders

Arizona Daily Star / Associated Press
June 20, 2012
by Matthew Daly

WASHINGTON - The Republican-controlled House approved a bill Tuesday that would allow the Border Patrol to circumvent more than a dozen environmental laws on all federally managed lands within 100 miles of the borders with Mexico and Canada.

Supporters - including newly sworn-in Rep. Ron Barber, a Tucson Democrat - said the measure is needed to give border agents unfettered access to rugged lands now controlled by the Interior Department and Forest Service.

Laws such as the Wilderness Act and Endangered Species Act often prevent agents from driving vehicles on huge swaths of land, leaving it to wildlife, illegal immigrants and smugglers who can walk through the territory undisturbed, they said.

The bill was approved 232-188.

The measure's chief sponsor, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said restrictions on federal lands have turned wilderness areas into highways for criminals, who not only bring in drugs but also abuse and rape women and leave behind thousands of tons of trash.

"Drug traffickers couldn't care less about environmental sensitivities," he said. "The removal of these criminals from our public lands is a value to the environment as well as the mission of the land managers."

But opponents, including hunters, conservationists and Hispanic advocacy groups, call the bill a heavy-handed fix that guts important environmental protections. They also question whether the measure is needed along the vast Canadian border, where there is scant evidence that illegal immigrants are hiking through national parks or wilderness areas in an attempt to slip into the U.S.
The Obama administration opposes the border-control bill, part of a package of 14 land-use bills approved Tuesday by the House.

The measure faces dim prospects in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., said the House bill would sacrifice crucial environmental protections to advance an anti-immigrant and anti-regulatory agenda.

Citizens of border communities who have been subjected to what he called an ever-increasing federal law enforcement presence "know what it is like to live in a police state where undertrained security forces with unfettered authority and a lack of oversight are ever-present," Grijalva said.

However, Barber - Grijalva's Democratic colleague from Southern Arizona - crossed party lines to support the House bill on his first day in office, after being elected last week.

"Border security is the No. 1 priority for the people who live and work along our nation's southern border," Barber said Tuesday in a news release. "There is no doubt that this bill will make our borders more secure. But this legislation is far from perfect and I will work to make changes as it moves through the process."

In a statement, the White House said the bill in its current form would "thwart successful efforts by agencies to collaborate on border security" and presents "a false choice between natural-resources protection and the economy or national security."

Besides the border measure, the bill also would transfer control of more than 65,000 acres of centuries-old trees in Alaska's Tongass National Forest to a private corporation. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, allows the Sealaska Corp. to log large, old-growth trees in the Tongass, the nation's largest national forest. Sealaska is one of 13 Native regional corporations set up under a 1971 act that compensated Alaska Natives for the loss of lands they historically used or occupied.

Critics call the proposal a land grab worth billions of dollars in timber sales.

S. Arizona votes

On passage of H.R. 2578, which, among other things, would allow the Border Patrol to circumvent environmental laws on federal land within 100 miles of the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico:

• Ron Barber, D - yes
• Raúl Grijalva, D - no

"Border security is the No. 1 priority for the people who live and work along our nation's southern border. There is no doubt that this bill will make our borders more secure. But this legislation is far from perfect and I will work to make changes as it moves through the process."
Rep. Ron Barber, newly elected Congressman from Tucson

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

House votes to ease environmental rules for border agents

The Hill
June 19, 2012
by Pete Kasperowicz

The House voted Tuesday to ease more than a dozen environmental rules for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents, to make it easier for them to patrol federally owned border land.

The provision was one of several in a land use bill that was made up of 14 different bills, some from Republicans, some from Democrats. The border agent provision was easily the most controversial, but despite Democratic opposition, the House approved the Conservation and Economic Growth Act, H.R. 2578, in a 232-188 vote.
The measure was ultimately supported by 16 Democrats in the final vote; 19 Republicans voted against it.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) was the chief defender of the border provisions, and argued, as he has in the past, that current environmental rules prohibit CBP agents from accessing huge areas of land that enjoys federal protections. He said this prevents any serious enforcement of the southern border, as illegal immigrants have no problem crossing through environmentally protected land.

"One of the ironies is our border patrol, which is tasked with securing our border, has almost unlimited rights to do what they need to do to protect our border on private property, and no one objects to it," Bishop said. "It is only on federal property that the federal border patrol is prohibited from doing its federal job."

Democrats sought to play up this language as an attempt to ignore environmental rules, and even expand unmanned drone use in the areas around border land.

"The GOP's 'drone zone' bill does not increase resources for border agents, but instead turns over our national resources to the Department of Homeland Security," Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said.

"Passing this bill does not increase the number of border patrol agents. It just ignores the protections against trampling on sovereign and sacred ground like tribal gravesides."

Bishop rejected this interpretation of the amendment. "It's cute, but it's also inaccurate," he said of Markey's presentation. But Bishop did offer an amendment to the bill that reduced the number of environmental laws that can be waived by CBP agents to 16, down from 36. That amendment was approved by voice vote.

At another moment in the debate, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) was arguing that a different section of the bill would allow for more logging along the Tongass River in Alaska, when she was interrupted by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who said millions of acres of forest land are already protected. That interruption led DeLauro, who never permitted Young to speak, to tell Young, "Just back off, OK?"

A full listing of the bills incorporated into H.R. 2578 can be seen here.

Immediately after the bill passed, members approved H.R. 2938, the Gila Bend Indian Reservation Lands Replacement Clarification Act, which would prevent a tribe in Arizona from developing a casino on their land. It needed a two-thirds majority to pass, and cleared that hurdle easily in a 343-78 vote.

HR 1505: The Latest Tribal Border War

Indian Country Today
June 19, 2012
by Heather Steinberger

Today, a broad parks and recreation bill called H.R. 2578 — “To amend the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act related to a segment of the Lower Merced River in California, and for other purposes,” also known as the Conservation and Economic Growth Act — is scheduled for a floor vote in the U.S. House of Representatives. And it will affect Indian country, as included in the bill is H.R. 1505, or the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act.

Authored by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) and featuring 59 cosponsors from across the country, H.R. 1505 would give the Secretary of Homeland Security, through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the authority to take control of “all land under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture within 100 miles of the international land borders of the United States.”

“Securing our nation’s borders must be among our highest priorities,” said Rep. Bishop, who also serves as House National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands Subcommittee chairman. “Right now, public lands inaccessible to the United States Border Patrol offer nearly unfettered safe harbor for criminal drug and human smugglers entering our country illegally. The Border Patrol must have improved access in order to deter and apprehend those using our federal lands as trafficking routes.”

The bill was amended in committee last fall to remove language that included maritime borders, add language to protect existing legal uses for recreational and economic activities, add a five-year sunset date to evaluate if the legislation should be renewed, and strictly limit the activities (six) for which the bill could be used. In fact, the committee changed all references to “The Secretary of Homeland Security” to “U.S. Customs and Border Protection” to emphasize that authority would be limited to border security operations and personnel. It would not be a broad new authority across the federal government.

However, according to Oliver “OJ” Semans, executive director of Four Directions, a nonpartisan get-out-the-native-vote organization based on South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation, the problem for Indian country is that the tribes whose lands lie within 100 miles of the Mexican and Canadian borders were never part of the legislative process — and would have no say in how their lands could be used within the scope of those six authorized activities.

“The (author and) sponsors of H.R. 1505 want to give the U.S. Department of Homeland Security unprecedented power to build roads, fences, buildings or even watchtowers on public land administered by the departments of Interior and Agriculture,” Semans said. “This bill directly affects tribes, and they were never even consulted and/or asked to attend hearings on the bills.”

The text of the amended legislation reads, “The Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture shall not impede, prohibit or restrict activities of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection on land under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture to achieve operational control over the international land borders of the United States.” The authorized activities include construction and maintenance of roads and fences; vehicle patrols; installation, maintenance and operation of surveillance equipment and sensors; use of aircraft; and deployment of temporary tactical infrastructure, including forward operating bases.

While the legislation states that it will not restrict legal land uses such as grazing, hunting or mining, it does list more than 30 acts that H.R. 1505 would waive. These include the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, the Act of June 8, 1906 (also known as “the Antiquities Act of 1906”), the National Historic Preservation Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the Wilderness Act. The National Historic Preservation Act and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act protect sites considered sacred to Native people.

Affected tribes include the Bay Mills Indian Community (Michigan), Blackfeet Tribe (Montana), Grand Portage Band of Chippewa (Minnesota), Red Lake Band of Chippewa (Minnesota), Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa Tribe (Michigan), St. Regis Mohawk Tribe (New York), Aroostook Band of Micmac (Maine), Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa (Wisconsin), Boise Forte Band of Chippewa (Minnesota), Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation (Washington), Fort Belknap Indian Community (Montana), Fort Peck Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes (Montana), Houlton Band of Maliseet (Maine), Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe (Washington), Kalispel Tribe (Washington), Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (Michigan), Kootenai Tribe (Idaho), Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe (Washington), Lummi Nation (Washington), Makah Tribe (Washington), Nooksack Tribe (Washington), Passamaquoddy Tribe (Maine), Penobscot Nation (Maine), Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa (Wisconsin), Seneca Nation (New York), Swinomish Tribe (Washington), Tonawanda Seneca Tribe (New York), Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa (North Dakota), Tuscarora Nation (New York) and the Upper Skagit Tribe (Washington).

One of H.R. 1505’s most vocal opponents is Senator Jon Tester (D-MT). His state is home to several affected tribes, and he has expressed deep concern for the lack of consultation with tribes — and lack of public input altogether.

“H.R. 1505 contains specific language that allows one federal department ‘immediate’ and total control over public lands in Montana,” said Aaron Murphy, communications director of Montanans for Tester. “Jon is concerned by this irresponsible proposal because it undermines… tribal sovereignty with a one-size-fits-all big government strategy, allowing a handful of federal agents to do whatever they want with no public input and no public accountability. Those who support this bill failed to consult with tribes — or any Montanans for that matter. Any decisions that deal with public land should be made with public input.

“Jon also is concerned that the legislation waives at least 36 laws,” he added.

Murphy noted that, as written, the Department of Homeland Security — again, through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection — would not have to seek permission to do whatever is necessary to achieve “operational control” on any land administered by the Department of Agriculture or the Department of the Interior.

“There is no language that exempts lands administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” he observed. “The House (committee) even rejected an amendment to specifically exempt tribal land from H.R. 1505.”

Sen. Tester, he said, “believes we can protect our nation without trampling tribal rights.”

Sen. Tester isn’t the only one to express concern. According to testimony from the House hearing on H.R. 1505, the lead lawyer for the Department of the Interior under President Clinton also expressed serious concerns about the bill’s effects on tribal sovereignty.

A fellow Montana legislator, Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT), is a co-sponsor of the bill and co-chair of the Congressional Northern Border Caucus. He proposed many of the changes that were incorporated into the current, amended version of H.R. 1505, and he said the bill is a good one for Montana and the United States.

“Border security is national security, and in Montana that means safety for our families and communities,” Rep. Rehberg commented. “It’s time to put an end to the dangerous turf war where federal land managers hide behind environmental laws in order to prevent border patrol agents from doing their jobs on federal land.”

He also noted that the legislation is much more targeted than what he called “the sweeping measure” that unanimously passed the U.S. Senate in 2009.

“We built in protections for grazing rights and more narrowly focused the intent of the law on efforts to secure the border,” he explained. “We also added a sunset provision so the law can be reviewed by Congress to make sure it’s working as intended. This was a good bill, and now it’s even better.”

Is there a dangerous “turf war” between federal agencies? The Department of Homeland Security already has a memorandum of understanding with the departments of Interior and Agriculture that allows the departments to work together in a situation that might require DHS to pursue suspects or investigations on public land. And, according to a prominent Washington D.C. lobbyist who represents tribes across the country, there has been “no hue and cry” from the Border Patrol to take additional measures to guarantee access.

Tom Rodgers is president of Alexandria-based Carlyle Consulting, and he is perhaps best known as the whistle-blower in the Jack Abramoff scandal. He also is a member of Montana’s Blackfeet Nation, and he said he questions the need for H.R. 1505 in the first place.

“I’ve seen the GAO report, and I’ve yet to see substantive arguments,” he commented. “I’m not convinced. There’s been silence from the Border Patrol, and I’ve never heard of any tribe denying access to its land. I call this a weapon of mass distraction.”

Rodgers said he also finds it ironic that so many advocates of smaller government are behind this particular bill.

“There are so few resources, and there are so many other needs,” he said. “Without a demonstrable need, why give the Department of Homeland Security more authority? Why are we spending time and resources on this? It doesn’t make sense.”

Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) is leading opposition to H.R. 1505 on the House Floor today. Members of affected tribes are encouraged to contact their representatives to share their views.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Expensive drones generate lots of buzz, few results

ABC News
June 15, 2012
by Andrew Becker, G.W. Schulz

An aerial drone, zooming somewhere out of sight high above the cooling scrubland, first spotted the group of nearly two dozen migrants.

Snaking through the Sonoran Desert on a warm, moonless night last month, the would-be immigrants traversed the rugged foothills southwest of Tucson, a few miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

It had been a relatively quiet shift in that area for U.S. Border Patrol agents, who paused to chat in their passing green-and-white SUVs as dusk crept closer. But just after 10 p.m. agents perked up, their radios crackling with activity.

A fixed-wing Cessna took over from the Predator B unmanned plane and from overhead the pilot helped direct agents toward the migrants, who wove around ocotillo and brush.

A helicopter swooped in, its spotlight beaming over the hillside and rotors slicing the desert solitude as agents dropped down a ridge to chase the scattering group.

All told, a dozen men and women in olive uniforms converged. They rounded up eight of the migrants, walked them toward their gathered trucks and lined them up in a shallow drainage ditch along a washboard dirt road. A few of the migrants asked about the "camera in the sky" that had caught them.

A pilotless aircraft may have awed the failed migrants, but such success stories about U.S. Customs and Border Protection's quarter-billion dollar drone program come in short supply, according to a Homeland Security Department inspector general's report released Monday.

Grounded by wind and bad weather, costly maintenance and poor planning, the underachieving aircraft have flown only a fraction of the agency's desired flight time from four bases in Arizona, Texas, Florida and North Dakota, the inspector general found.

In Arizona, where the agency keeps four drones, agents seemed pleasantly surprised that an unmanned craft had aided their efforts, though they had apprehended fewer than half of the detected migrants.

In its audit, however, the inspector general recommended that the agency stop buying the drones, manufactured by Poway-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, until officials can properly plan how to get the most out of the unmanned planes and budget for the program, which includes having enough equipment to perform their mission.

"CBP has not adequately planned to fund unmanned aircraft-related equipment," such as ground control stations, ground support equipment, cameras and navigation systems, the inspector general report says. "As a result of CBP's insufficient funding approach, future UAS [unmanned aerial systems] missions may have to be curtailed."

Customs and Border Protection officials said they concurred with the inspector general's recommendations and were committed to continuing to improve the drone program. In its written response to the inspector general's report, the agency said it had no plans to add more drones beyond the 10 already in operation or on order "unless directed by a higher authority."

The agency's previously stated goal was to expand to 24 drones, which cost about $18.5 million for the Predator B and $20.5 million for the maritime version, known as the Guardian, to operate. Those costs include maintenance, surveillance technology and ground equipment.

In the past year the agency has added two unmanned aircraft to its underutilized fleet and expects to receive its 10th system by September. The agency can still purchase up to 24 drones, but authorization is based on the availability of funding.

Officials this year also hope to secure permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to extend drone coverage just east of the San Diego metropolitan area, the last major section of the Southwest border to be patrolled by the aircraft.

Drones now patrol about 1,200 miles along the Southwest border from the Gulf of Mexico to just east of El Centro in southeastern California and can stay aloft for 20 hours.

Championed by Congress, derided by critics

The report echoes what critics including some Border Patrol agents have long said about the expensive, remotely controlled Predator B fleet.

They point to what they view as the program's meager returns since it began in 2006, as the drones have assisted in the seizure of nearly 50,000 pounds of drugs and the detention of about 7,500 people.

By comparison, decades-old P-3 Orion propeller planes, which once hunted submarines for the Navy, in the past five years have aided in the seizure or disruption of 863,000 pounds of drugs including 148,000 pounds of cocaine last year alone. Agency officials have described the plane as an "unsung hero."

"It is my sense that Congress has consistently overlooked (dare I say, 'ignored') not only the operational effectiveness, but also the cost effectiveness of the Predator [unmanned aerial vehicle] as a border surveillance tool," David Olive, a Washington-based homeland security consultant, wrote last year for the Security Debrief blog.

Customs and Border Protection officials have defended the drones, saying they are also used to assist in disaster and emergency relief, such as flooding, and other reconnaissance. The Office of Air and Marine also has flown missions for other agencies, including the FBI, FEMA, the Defense Department, Texas Rangers and the U.S. Forest Service.

Critics like Olive have said that the drones haven't met expectations in other situations, such as the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, when the on-scene commander waved off the drones after a couple of weeks because they weren't helpful.

The inspector general also found that the agency does not have agreements to get reimbursed for missions flown for other agencies nor does it have a formal process to handle requests from outside agencies or ways to prioritize such missions.

In 2011, the agency's Office of Air and Marine flew its drones more than ever roughly 4,500 hours and 75 percent above any other fiscal year.

But that flight time amounts to a quarter of the agency's goal. The systems cost about $3,200 per hour to fly, for a total of about $14.5 million last year alone.

The result: Unmanned aircraft last year helped to find about 7,600 pounds of marijuana and apprehend 75 people suspected of engaging in illicit activities, according to the agency.

Overall, the U.S. Border Patrol, which is also part of Customs and Border Protection, in 2011 seized more than 2.5 million pounds of marijuana and apprehended 340,252 people, agency records show.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who has championed drones as the Democratic co-chairman of the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, said that Customs and Border Protection has to go back to the basics and come up with a sound strategic plan for its drones.

"The first thing any agency should have is a strategic plan. I assumed they had a plan," said Cuellar. "We have to know where we are going before we start buying any more of the assets."

Yet, the program and drones in general continue to receive wide-ranging support from lawmakers. The unmanned systems caucus, which promotes "the overwhelming value" of drones and "the urgent need to rapidly develop and deploy" more of them, has nearly 60 members, including 11 California representatives and the Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee.

The House Homeland Security Appropriations subcommittee recently pushed for an increase above the Homeland Security Department's request for $18.6 million to buy, deploy and operate sensors and other equipment used on its existing drones.

The Senate Armed Services Committee, meanwhile, has called for the broader use of unmanned aircraft in the country's national airspace as large numbers of drones used in Afghanistan and other operations may return to the United States as those battles wind down.

"Without the ability to operate freely and routinely in the [National Airspace System], UAS (unmanned aerial system) development and training and ultimately operational capabilities will be severely impacted," according to a recent committee report.

Technologically advanced weather permitting

Touted for their technological advances and airborne omniscience, the drones require on average an hour of maintenance for every hour in the air, the report states.

Between 2006 and 2011, the agency spent $55.3 million to operate and maintain the drones. Congress has only appropriated $12.6 million for such costs, which include training, satellite links, facility rental and contractor support, since the agency's drone program began, according to the report.

Customs and Border Protection figures show that Congress has appropriated $240.6 million to establish, operate and maintain the unmanned aircraft program, which consists of 10 systems, and spent about $224 million.

Yet, winds often keep the drones on the ground, as it happened in late May when a reporter visited the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station, where two such aircraft are based. Cuellar said in his two visits to the base pilots could not launch or retrieve crafts because of weather conditions. The Predator B design allows it to take off and land in winds up to 30 miles per hour.

Cuellar said he plans to address the issue next week during a House Homeland Security Subcommittee meeting. He said he has pushed the agency to station the drones at other places that provide more consistent flight conditions. But officials have been "stubborn" about keeping the drones on military bases for security reasons.

"That's almost insulting to say there's no other place along the Texas border that can provide security for [unmanned aircraft]," he said.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

House GOP eyes omnibus package including border bill, Tongass land deal

E&E Daily
June 13, 2012
by Phil Taylor

The House as early as next week could begin debate on a package of more than a dozen lands bills sure to spark heated debate over issues ranging from national security to tribal economic development, endangered species protections and access to federal beaches, among other issues.

The House Rules Committee yesterdayannounced it is accepting amendments to a public lands omnibus that includes controversial proposals to lift environmental protections along the Mexican and Canadian borders, to allow conveyance of prime timberlands in Alaska's Tongass National Forest and to overturn a National Park Service plan restricting motorized access on a North Carolina seashore.

The panel said it could meet next week to pass a rule governing debate on amendments.

The package includes Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Chairman Rob Bishop's (R-Utah)H.R. 1505, which would exempt the Department of Homeland Security from dozens of conservation laws along a 100-mile swath of the nation's borders.

It also includes Rep. Don Young's (R-Alaska)H.R. 1408, which would allow a southeast Alaska native corporation to acquire lands in the Tongass from outside the areas it was allowed to select in a 1971 settlement.

The package also containsH.R. 4094, a bipartisan measure that seeks to roll back a Park Service plan to restrict beach driving at Cape Hatteras National Seashore to protect endangered piping plovers and sea turtles (Greenwire, June 7).

Also included is Rep. Raul Labrador's (R-Idaho)H.R. 4234, which would streamline permitting for ranchers who graze cattle on public lands.

Environmental groups have come out strongly against most of the bills in the package, particularly Bishop's, which opponents claim is overly broad, and Young's, which is criticized for allowing clear-cut logging of old-growth trees.

"It's an equal opportunity offender, from our perspective, in the expanse of what they're trying to propose," said Bobby McEnaney, a senior public lands analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It looks like Republicans are trying to hit the Earth with an asteroid."

Speaking in opposition to H.R. 4094, by Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), Kristin Brengel, legislative director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said, "Cape Hatteras National Seashore has more people visiting the beaches and more nesting shore birds and turtles." She added, "The National Park Service plan was put in place after extensive scientific review and four years of input from park visitors, fisherman, local government officials and the public."

Ben Lamb, a board member for the Helena Hunters and Anglers Association in Montana, said Bishop's bill could compromise access to the backcountry along hundreds of miles of the state's Canadian border. "There are certainly a lot of hunters who are very concerned about this legislation," he said.

Cindy Shogan, executive director for the Alaska Wilderness League, said Young's bill is "out of touch with reality."

"Senator [Lisa] Murkowski [D-Alaska] listened to her constituents and made changes based on their input, while Representative Young's bill includes no conservation lands and has increased the acreage to be logged and is the most detrimental bill yet for the small communities in southeast Alaska," she said. "This bill will be [dead on arrival] on the Senate side."

Sponsors of the bills say legislation is needed to curb a regulatory overreach that has closed businesses, has stifled national security and threatens jobs for those who make a living off public lands.

"If you do nothing, you're still turning over enormous swaths of land to the drug cartels that don't care about the Endangered Species Act, that don't care about wilderness designations," Bishop said last month about H.R. 1505, which he said would bolster environmental protections along the border.

McEnaney said the package's timing came somewhat as a surprise, given that House leaders have already indicated they intend to take up legislation next week that would ease environmental regulations and significantly expand the production of oil and gas on public lands (Greenwire, May 25).

Given the packed agenda, the public lands package could easily be pushed to the following week.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Brownsville to recoup fence land, continue project

Brownsville Herald
June 3, 2012
by Emma Perez-Trevino

The city of Brownsville and attorneys for private trusts told U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen Wednesday that their negotiations are progressing regarding land that the federal government condemned to make way for placement of a temporary border fence.

The United States took possession of 15.919 acres of land from the city in 2009, but an agreement that the parties reached contains provisions that the land would revert to the city upon construction of a new levee. The fence would then be moved to the new levee.

The fence was built on what is known as the East Loop levee between the Gateway International Bridge and the B&M International Bridge.

When the city constructs a new levee, the property would revert to the city to allow it to complete the East Loop, which would carry heavy truck traffic from the international bridges to the Port of Brownsville. City officials said at the time that the land also is vital to the contemplated development of the historic downtown area.

Under the agreement reached with the government, the city would be responsible for designing and constructing the replacement levee and barriers, and the temporary fencing would be removed by the government if funding were available.

After the agreement was reached, however, it was learned that the Browne trusts have an interest in some of the property. Their attorney Daniel L. Rentfro Jr. advised Hanen that they are not contesting the agreement between the city and the government. Rentfro said that they have been negotiating with the city and Cameron County and are resolving issues of just compensation.

The government’s attorney Daniel David Hu told Hanen that this is “obviously the city’s business.”
The parties will keep the court informed as they continue to work toward reversion of the property to the city.