Climate

Bill Would Roll Back Public Lands Protections In The Name Of National Security

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As part of what critics say is one of the most aggressive anti-environmental agendas ever pursued by a new Congress, a legislative committee in the U.S. Senate this week is taking up a bill that critics worry would roll back protections for national parks, wilderness, and wildlife in Arizona under the pretext of national security.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ)’s bill, the “Arizona Borderland Protection and Preservation Act” (S.750), would give the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP) “access to federal lands for security activities” on 10 million acres in Arizona and parts of California. It would make it easier for border patrol to enter and operate on federal lands, including parks, build infrastructure such as radio towers. The area includes some of Arizona’s most treasured public lands, including Saguaro National Park, Coronado National Forest, Sonoran Desert National Monument, and multiple wildlife refuges.

Introducing the bill in March, McCain and cosponsor Congressman Matt Salmon (R-AZ) said that “laws put in place to protect these lands also prevent Border Patrol agents from doing their jobs,” and the legislation would “cut unnecessary red tape and enable Border Patrol agents to have access to all federally managed land in Southwest Arizona so they can perform their jobs effectively, keep our communities safe, and secure the border once and for all.”

However, others argue that the true purpose of the bill is to weaken and disregard environmental protections altogether. Randy Serraglio, a Southwest conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, told E&E Publishing that “the notion that laws protecting public lands are somehow impeding border security is a fantasy cooked up by politicians who’ve been trying for many years to weaken those protections.”

Dinah Bear, a resident of Tucson, Arizona, agrees.

“The bill means a further erosion of the rule of law in Arizona” she told ThinkProgress in an email. “If S.750 passed, it would undermine genuine cooperation taking place today between the Border Patrol and, for example, the National Park Service. Congress persists in sending very clear messages that they do not respect the public’s interest in protecting public lands, tribal rights, communities and wildlife.”

In a letter to Senate Leaders on Tuesday, more than 40 immigration, labor, environmental, human rights and faith-based organizations called the bill “profoundly harmful,” saying that it “would subordinate every existing legal protection applicable to federal public lands in a vast, 10-million acre area of Arizona to its unattainable objective of entirely sealing the southwest border.”

Additionally, CBP representatives have testified that existing protections for public lands do not impede their ability to carry out security operations. In a 2011 Statement for the Record to the House Committee on Natural Resources, the agency stated that “CBP enjoys a close working relationship with the Department of Interior (DOI) and Department of Agriculture (USDA) that allows us to fulfill our border enforcement responsibilities while respecting and enhancing the environment. We respect the missions of these agencies, and we recognize the importance of preserving the American landscape.”

Dan Millis, program organizer for the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter said that Border Patrol already works in conjunction with officials at the National Park Service and National Forest Service to make sure all the agencies are able to get their jobs done effectively.

“Better coordination is a good thing for the environment, since land managers have the chance to share their expertise with law enforcement, and vice-versa,” he told ThinkProgress in an email. “S.750 would undermine cooperative efforts. It doesn’t make sense for lawmakers to legislatively insist that agencies ignore each other and that Border Patrol run roughshod over cultural and environmental considerations.”

This isn’t the first time that this sort of bill has been introduced in Congress. A similar bill, introduced by Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) at the beginning of the year, would waive 16 environmental laws on federal lands within 100 miles of U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh C. Johnson said McCaul’s bill is “not a serious effort at legislating border security,” and that it “is extreme to the point of being unworkable; if enacted, it would actually leave the border less secure.”

In January, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) told the Salt Lake Tribune in January that the true intention of that bill “is to establish a precedent that those laws can be waived, ignored, repealed, and once that precedent is established, the foot is in the door to get rid of those laws everywhere else. That’s not a conspiracy theory; that’s what they’re trying to do.” A vote on McCaul’s bill was postponed in January, but the bill could be taken up later this year.

McCain’s bill is expected to be marked up in the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs committee on Wednesday.

Claire Moser is the Research and Advocacy Associate with the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress. You can follow her on Twitter at @Claire_Moser.