Death Of Border Patrol Agent Reignites Debate About Border Security, Environmental Protection, And Public Lands

By Jessica Goad and Christy Goldfuss

What do laws protecting national parks and the accidental death of a border patrol agent have in common? Nothing. And yet a Congressman from Utah has used a recent incident to push for legislation that addresses border safety by gutting environmental laws.

Last week, Border Patrol agent Nicholas Ivie was killed in what was apparently friendly fire while responding to an alarm along the U.S.-Mexico border near Bisbee, Arizona. The incident remains under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

This tragic incident has also reignited the debate around the relationship between environmental laws, public lands, and border security.

Before it was clear that Ivie had been killed not by drug smugglers but in an accident, two Utah Congressmen issued a press release offering their condolences and also highlighting the fact that the incident took place on public lands. The press release stated that “The shootings occurred in the immediate proximity of federal lands…” and reminded readers that another border patrol agent was killed “on federal lands about 70 miles from where this incident took place” in December 2010.

The press release also touted a bill introduced by Congressman Rob Bishop (R-UT), who is Chairman of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands. The “National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act” (H.R. 1505) passed the House in June of this year. It would roll back 16 environmental laws on public lands (including a few that protect national parks) and give the Department of Homeland Security authority to block access to public lands within 100 miles of U.S. borders in order to secure them.

The laws rolled back are: the Wilderness Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Archeological and Historic Preservation Act, the Antiquities Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, the Fish and Wildlife Act, the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, the Administrative Procedure Act, the National Park Service Organic Act, the National Park Service General Authorities Act, parts of the National Parks and Recreation Act, and the Arizona Desert Wilderness Act.

Bishop has explained the need for this bill in the past by saying:

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. 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.

He also told Greenwire that the incident has spurred him to reach out to various Senate offices to continue to push the bill.

While the incident did apparently take place on Bureau of Land Management land, a spokesperson stated that there were no restrictions to access on them:

BLM spokesman Dennis Godfrey said he did not believe there were any access restrictions on the lands where the shooting took place. State, federal and private lands are interspersed in a checkerboard pattern there, according to a map provided by Bishop’s office.

“It’s very, very unlikely that there were any signs,” Godfrey said. “You’d walk onto that land and not know you’d change status.”

Previously, Customs and Border Protection has stated that public lands do not stand in the way of the border patrol doing its job. CBP has a Memorandum of Understanding with the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture and stated during a hearing on the bill that it has a “close working relationship” with the agencies that allows it to carry out its “border enforcement responsibilities while respecting and enhancing the environment.”

While the death of a border patrol agent on duty is a tragedy, it is not an excuse to roll back environmental laws in a bill that Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has called “unnecessary” and “a bad policy.”Jessica is the Manager of Research and Outreach and Christy is the Director of the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.