The House decided not to vote on its controversial border bill due to lack of support Thursday, a move that means that the public lands along the border are, at least for now, safe from the interference the bill would have allowed. House Republican leaders, however, said on Thursday evening that they would try again to vote Friday.
The bill would have given Customs and Border Protection the authority to build roads, barriers, and surveillance equipment in national parks within 100 miles of the U.S. border with Mexico. Importantly, it contained a passage prohibiting the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture from doing anything to “impede, prohibit, or restrict activities of U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Federal land located within 100 miles of the United States border with Mexico.” It also waived multiple laws in effect on some of these lands — including the Wilderness Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Fish and Wildlife Act.
The bill may not have been voted on today, but its introduction comes after a week of increasingly fearful language from Republican lawmakers on the problems national parks, monuments, and other protected areas pose for border security.
“There is no doubt that the restrictions on accessing land along the border have made it more difficult for the Border Patrol to do their job,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said earlier this week.
“As we deal with border enforcement issues, part of our reality in being hamstrung in our ability to enforce is that we have public lands along that border that are held by the Department of the Interior in refuge and wilderness status,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said last week. “We can’t get access to a road, to a trail for an ATV so our Customs and Border Patrol agents can patrol that.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), who helped write the provision of the bill that deals with federal lands, said that though border agents are able to access public lands if they’re pursuing a suspect, “if they are just patrolling, they don’t have the right to go in. The border will never be secure as long as you prohibit the border patrol from doing their job,” he said.
Matt Lee-Ashley, director of the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress, said he doesn’t buy these claims.
“It’s a red herring,” he told ThinkProgress. “Border Patrol has been very clear that it has every authority it needs to go anywhere at any time to fulfill its mission. In fact, national security experts and retired generals say that, from an operational perspective, lands that are protected from encroachment and development are easier to patrol and monitor.”
Customs and Border Protection, in fact, has a working relationship with the Department of Interior and U.S. Department of Agriculture, and has hammered out ways to deal with public lands near the border. In 2006, the three agencies signed a Memorandum of Understanding that stated that CBP’s border patrol was authorized to access public lands, “including areas designated by Congress as wilderness, recommended as wilderness, and/or wilderness study areas.” Border Patrol agents on foot or horseback are able to patrol, pursue, and capture suspects in public lands, and they can drive cars or ATVs through existing roads and trails at any time. They can also pursue suspects off-road if they feel that human safety is endangered or national security is threatened.
“We are committed to collaboration with Interior and the [U.S. Forest Service] to find workable solutions on special status lands,” CBP spokeswoman Jackie Wasiluk told U.S. News. “CBP’s close working relationship with Interior and USFS allows CBP to fulfill its enforcement responsibilities while respecting and enhancing the environment.”
The issue of public lands interfering with border security was raised in May this year after Obama created the Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument, which runs up against the U.S-Mexico border in New Mexico. Boehner called the decision to create the monument “yet another challenge in our ongoing efforts to secure our southern border,” despite the fact that CBP said that the monument wouldn’t interfere with the agency’s mission to protect the border.
Garett Reppenhagen, Rocky Mountain West Coordinator Vet Voice Foundation and Army veteran, said Organ Mountains doesn’t hinder border security, in part because the terrain in the region it’s located is already so severe that few attempt to cross there.
“This area of New Mexico is the least penetrated area of the entire U.S.-Mexico border, because of the wild spaces it entails,” he said. “Someone who is crossing does not want to cross miles of desert to get into the United States.”
Instead of creating a problem for border security, Reppenhagen thinks the new monument could enhance the amount of security around the area. There will be more people coming to visit the area and there will also be more law enforcement in the area, so if people do try to cross the border, they’re more likely to be reported.
“Park rangers and forest rangers are both law enforcement officers, and all the protected lands that we create are going to have increased federal personnel on the ground in these areas,” he said. “We have a lot of fugitives that go through public lands areas. Oftentimes it’s looked to these rangers to actually do the pursuing because they’re going to know the areas better, and they’re going to understand the terrain.”
This isn’t the first time border security has run up against environmental issues. In 2011, a study found that the fence built along part of the U.S.-Mexico border was chopping up important habitat and isolating populations of animals. So far, the federal government has spent almost $18 million on projects that try to offset the environmental damage caused by the fence, including purchasing more than 800 acres for California’s San Diego National Wildlife Refuge and investing money to help re-grow agave plants at the Coronado National Memorial in Arizona.