MT. RAINIER NATIONAL PARK, Wash. — Ten years after the tragic events of September 11, securing our borders is still a pressing issue for politicians on both sides of the aisle. But for some in Congress, national security and environmental protection can’t coexist.
If HR1505, as the bill is called, passes it would allow the Department of Homeland Security to build roads, transmission lines, and security installations on any federally-owned land within 100 miles of the U.S. coast or border. That includes national Forests, wilderness areas and National Parks like Mt. Rainier.
Tom Uniack, conservation director of the Washington Wildnerness Coalition, stands on a footbridge overlooking the Van Trump Creek in Mt. Rainier National Park.
“The bill is written in a way that all these things, potentially, if seen as part of the national interest or national security, could apply and laws could be exempted,” he says.
Altogether, the bill would allow the Department of Homeland Security to override 36 environmental and other laws on these federal lands in the interest of border security — including such bedrock laws as the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.
The idea gives some environmentalists night sweats, but the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Rob Bishop (R -UT), says it just makes sense.
“Wilderness designation in no way should trump border security.” Bishop says current law allows federal land managers to “bully” the U.S. Border Patrol on public lands.
“They can do what they need to do on private property, it’s only on public property that they’re restricted and that is ridiculous. That’s simply asinine.”
The bill would allow The Department of Homeland Security to basically do whatever it deems necessary to in order to achieve “operational control” of public lands within 100 miles of the U.S. border. That means keeping out terrorists and illegal immigrants. In particular, Congressman Bishop says it’s necessary to secure parts of the US border in Arizona, where large numbers of illegal immigrants from Mexico enter the country.
“To my belief it’s because 80 percent of Arizona border with Mexico is federal property, over half of that is wilderness designation, endangered species habitat, conservation habitat where the border patrol is limited to the kind of access they have and what they can do.”
Opponents of HR 1505 say the bill would give unprecedented authority to a single federal agency to ignore environmental laws. And Jane Danowitz, of the Pew Environment Group in Washington, D.C., says there’s a lot more at stake than just the Arizona desert or Mt. Rainier. A huge amount of public land would fall under the bill’s scope.
“Were talking about some of the nation’s most popular national parks and beaches. Glacier National Park, the Florida everglades, beaches along Cape Cod, the Great Lakes and the California coastline.”
Danowitz says the bill is overkill. “After 9/11 national security for all the right reasons jumped to the top of America’s priorities but the sweeping waiver of our bedrock environmental laws has little to do with accomplishing that goal.”
What it does have to do with, Danowitz asserts, is a rising anti-environmental movement in Congress.
“There’s going to be a lot of things happening this fall in Congress that are under the radar. There are more than 70 provisions that would undo longstanding protections for clean air, clean water, wilderness, (endangered species) and even allow uranium mining around the Grand Canyon.”
Regardless of the intentions of its sponsors, it’s not just environmentalists who oppose this bill. The very agency that supporters say will benefit the most from HR 1505 -– Customs and Border Protection –- doesn’t want the power it would be given.
When I asked Congressman Bishop about that in a phone interview there was a long pause before he responded: “Yes, yes they did [say that].” Bishop paused again before continuing, “One would think that those in Washington who are the bureaucrats would like to stand up and try and defend those people who are on the ground. So I will tell you right now privately, when I talk to people who are current Border Patrol personnel as well as those who are retired border patrol, they have a different story than this current administration has.”
Along with Bishop, HR1505 has 48 co-sponsors in the House, all Republicans. The bill, which is officially titled the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act, will begin working its way through the House early this fall.
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