Bill Would Give Border Patrol More Access to Parks

Environmental groups are fighting a proposal that would grant U.S. Customs and Border Protection greater authority to operate in public parks and on environmentally protected land, saying it would circumvent regulations designed to protect natural resources.

The National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act, authored by Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop, would prevent the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Secretary of the Interior from enacting environmental regulations that hinder the operations of the CBP on public lands within 100 miles of the U.S. border. It was voted out of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources last month — with "yes" votes from Republican Texas Reps. Louie Gohmert and Bill Flores.

The bill, Bishop said, is a common sense solution that addresses one of the prevailing issues preventing us from gaining full operational control of the border — the U.S. Border Patrol’s lack of sufficient access to millions of acres of federally owned land.”

Environmental groups, however, call the proposal a land grab that would allow the federal government to circumvent environmental regulations whenever it chooses, placing water, fresh air and other natural resources in peril.

“There are literally no checks on the agency. They would have unfettered access and control to do whatever they choose; there would be no oversight in Congress,” said Paul Spitler, senior regional conservation representative for the Wilderness Society. “This bill is a wrong-headed approach to a serious problem. ... Overturning the laws that protect Americans, that’s not going to make our border more secure.”

If passed, the resolution would allow the U.S. Border Patrol access to territories like Texas’ Big Bend National Park to build patrol roads and fences and set up surveillance equipment. The proposal also authorizes the use of Border Patrol vehicles and aircraft and the deployment of “tactical infrastructure, including forward operating bases,” according to statement from Bishop’s office. National wildlife refuges, forests and lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management would also be open to the U.S. Border Patrol.

Representatives with the Department of the Interior declined to speak about the proposal, saying the agency does not comment on pending legislation. The USDA did not respond to a request for comment.

But opponents of the measure say it simply isn't necessary. 

“The Border Patrol has been working closely with the land management agencies to ensure that they have the access they need to make the borders more secure, and they’ve testified to this fact,” Spitler said. He cited a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office published last year that showed a majority of Border Patrol supervisors said environmental regulations did not impede their abilities to patrol the border.

“Most patrol agents-in-charge whom we interviewed said that the border security status of their jurisdictions has been unaffected by land management laws,” the report stated. “Instead, factors ... such as the remoteness and ruggedness of the terrain or dense vegetation have had the greatest effect on their abilities to achieve or maintain operational control.”

But more than two dozen groups, including the National Border Patrol Council and the National Association of Police Organizations, support the measure.

“For years, the federal government has used environmental regulations to block access for our Border Patrol agents to the over 20 million acres of federal land along the U.S.-Mexican Border," the NBPC said in a statement. "This lack of access has resulted in an increase in criminal activities such as drug smuggling and human trafficking.”

Added the police association, "Currently, Border Patrol agents are unable to access portions of the 20.7 million acres along our southern borders and 1,000 miles of our northern borders.”

These arguments haven't swayed environmentalists with the Rio Grande International Study Center, a Laredo-based conservation group dedicated to preserving the Rio Grande-Rio Bravo watershed. They question the motives behind the proposal.

“This is a bill that would impact such a huge part of the country and so many people in an area that falls outside of [Bishop's] own district,” said Tricia Cortez, the group's executive director. Cortez adds that, at least in Laredo, federal law enforcement officials work closely with landowners and public officials. “As far as I know there hasn’t been an issue where there are all these kinds of impediments that prevent them from doing their job."

Spitler said all sides favor a secure border. He said this proposal is really an effort by conservatives to dilute environmental protections. 

“It’s part of a pattern of scapegoating environmental laws for any problem by extreme members of Congress,” he said. “Their solutions always seem to be to overturn the environmental laws. Well, the environmental laws aren’t the problem here.”

Officials at Big Bend National Park in West Texas said the current system works quite well.

Chief Ranger Allen Etheridge, who oversees law enforcement operations there, declined to comment on the proposal, but said his agency has an “excellent” relationship with U.S. Border Patrol. Park officials provide the agency access to communications equipment and even to the park's aircraft for surveillance support. Etheridge says there has never been a situation where park staff has impeded agents from performing their duties, and agents in turn alert Big Bend employees to situations they feel need to be addressed. Agents actually live on park land, he added.

“We help them if our agents encounter [a situation] with immigration concerns … and when Border Patrol encounters resource damage or wildlife crimes, they call us,” he said.

Bill Brooks, the public information officer for Border Patrol’s Beg Bend Sector, declined to comment on the proposal. But he concurred with Etheridge’s assessment of the relationship.

Crystal Feldman, the press secretary for the Committee on Natural Resources, told the Tribune the bill is still pending, and could not comment on when the measure would go before the full House of Representatives for a vote.

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