Border security versus the environmentby Hugh Holub on Jun. 13, 2011, under border issues, border patrol, Center for Biological Diversity, politics
From the Arizona Republic June 13, 2011:
Federal legislation pits environment against security
Plan to ease conservation laws for Border Patrol draws outcry
by Shaun McKinnon – Jun. 13, 2011 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
Federal authorities can’t secure sections of the U.S. border because of environmental laws that block access to public lands and slow efforts to stop drug smugglers and illegal immigrants, say backers of legislation that would waive those laws along the border.
But conservation groups say the congressional bills, two in the U.S. House and one in the Senate, create solutions for non-existent problems and are largely driven by opportunistic, anti-environmental lawmakers who want to weaken laws they always have opposed.
The proposals thrust together two of the West’s most volatile issues, border security and environmental regulation, and pit activists on both sides in a fight that likely will spill over into the 2012 elections.
The bills’ backers have tried to frame the debate as a choice between securing dangerous borders or complying with onerous, bureaucratic rules. The endangered desert pupfish emerged as a symbol last month of the clashing priorities. Both sides have cited the same federal audit of border-law enforcement to prove points.
The dispute is centered on thousands of acres of public lands along the border, most of them under the jurisdiction of federal agencies that enforce an array of restrictive environmental regulations.
The rules apply to any potential land user, including the Border Patrol and other Homeland Security agencies. They require the agencies to complete detailed environmental assessments to gauge the effects of roads or other developments, and they impose limits on various activities, such as crossing into protected wildlife habitats.
Supporters of the bills say the rules impede quick action on the border and give land-management agencies more authority over national-security decisions than the security agencies.
“The different trails that drug smugglers and human smugglers use change depending on where Border Patrol agents are stationed,” said Rep. Ben Quayle, R-Ariz., author of one of the three bills. “Our agents need to have the ability to move quickly. But sometimes it’s taking as much as four months to get them through all the hoops.”
Quayle’s bill would give the U.S. Customs and Border Protection ready access to federal lands for security activities, including motorized patrols and the deployment of temporary tactical infrastructure, such as surveillance equipment.
The agencies would be directed to protect natural and cultural resources as much as possible, but they would not be forced to comply with land-management rules. The unrestricted access would extend 150 miles from the U.S.-Mexican border, a distance that would stretch north of Phoenix.
Republican Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl included a similar provision in a broader border-security bill, waiving environmental laws within the same 150-mile band along the southwestern border.
But a wider-reaching bill, introduced by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, pushed the issue to center stage. Bishop’s bill is more specific and expansive than the others. It lists nearly three dozen laws that would be waived along the border, including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Wilderness Act.
It would also allow the federal government to waive those laws within a 100-mile corridor around the entire U.S. border for border-enforcement agencies.
Critics jumped on that provision and produced a map to illustrate the reach of the bill. It would extend across all of Florida, most of the Northeast and all of Hawaii.
“It’s clear to me this is a political game being played by someone whose district is nowhere near the border, someone who doesn’t understand what’s going on along the border, someone with a political agenda,” said Randy Serraglio, a conservation advocate for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. “This is bad government waiting to happen.”
Bishop, who toured the Arizona border region earlier this year, said the environmental laws allow land managers to impose what he called “unacceptable restrictions” that give them more influence over border security than law-enforcement agencies have.
In a 2010 report, the Government Accountability Office found that environmental laws had led to restrictions on border enforcement and delays in patrolling and monitoring activities. The GAO said 14 Border Patrol agents in charge reported blocked access to land or slow response times by land agencies in issuing permits.
Those delays often occurred when agents needed access to an area without roads or when the agency needed to locate monitoring equipment. The report cited one instance when the Border Patrol asked to move a mobile surveillance system, but in the four months needed to process the request, illegal traffic had shifted to other areas.
Allowing bureaucratic procedures to dictate border-security measures, Bishop said, “has jeopardized the safety and security of all Americans.”
The GAO report also found that 22 of 26 patrol agents in charge said the overall security of their area had not been affected by environmental regulations despite the delays or time spent on paperwork. Conservation groups cite those findings, along with comments by patrol agents that their most pressing needs are more agents and more resources.
Although the GAO found issues at several locations along the U.S. border, the potential for conflict was highest in the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, where there is a high concentration of public lands: three national wildlife refuges, two national monuments, a national conservation area, a national forest and the Tohono O’odham Reservation.
In many cases, say supporters of the three bills, the multiple jurisdictions mean patrol agents can’t even keep up a chase because they don’t have permission to enter certain areas.
“The difficulties encountered by the Border Patrol to gain operational control are not the result of poor management or lack of resources,” said retired patrol agent Gene Wood, who testified at a hearing on behalf of Bishop’s bill. “It is simply an issue of denied access.”
Quayle and Bishop both say their bills ultimately could protect the environment if fewer illegal border crossers make their way north into the parks and monuments.
“The environmental damage that is currently occurring from drug smugglers and human smugglers will vastly outweigh any damages by the Border Patrol,” Quayle said. “The Border Patrol will have much better sense and take much better care of the area.”
Critics of the environmental laws also have complained about rules that protect riparian areas and wildlife habitat. One group tried to elevate the endangered desert pupfish to symbol status, alleging that Border Patrol agents had to chase illegal border crossers on foot in one area of southern Arizona to avoid disturbing the fish.
Homeland Security officials said the fish did not impede regular patrols or other activities.
The conservation groups say almost all of the complaints have been from outside the security agencies. They cite testimony by Ronald Vitiello, the Border Patrol’s deputy chief, during an April hearing in Washington. He gave numerous examples of his agency working with land managers in the border area and talked about the patrol’s commitment to protecting resources.
“There is no access issue for the Border Patrol,” said Jenny Neeley, an advocate for the Sky Island Alliance, a group that focuses on fragile habitats near the border. “They’re not asking for these additional waivers. To say that environmental rules are getting in the way of border security is just a complete farce. There’s no evidence of it.”
Vitiello, in his testimony, talked about cooperative agreements, signed in 2006 and 2008, that have provided guidelines for the various agencies, including the Border Patrol, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service to work with one another. Those agreements have resulted in successes, he said.
Matt Skroch, executive director of the Arizona Wilderness Coalition, said both security and resource protection would be better served by continued cooperation.
“It’s about balance,” he said. “Border security and natural resources are both very important. They can work with one another, not against one another. This waiver authority would set the clock back a decade.”
COMMENT: I think Congress ought to investigate the role the Center for Biological Diversity is playing in attacking our national security interests.
Securing the border at the border…while there would be roads and other environmental impact close to the border….a whole lot of country would be better protected for environmental values farther inside the country.
All you need to do is look at the burnt down Chirchahua Mountains to understand the trade-offs.