There's a turf war going on near our nation's borders. That's the argument supporters of the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act have made in defense of awarding border patrol agents unfettered access to millions of acres of federally held public lands, a proposal now under review in the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee.
Agencies under the departments of Agriculture and the Interior have locked security personnel out of vast swaths of land, their story goes, putting U.S. citizens and border agents at risk. But the recent and sometimes outraged debate over House Resolution 1505 has shown a disconnect between Congress and the people calling for the bill.
Rep. Rob Bishop, a Republican from Utah, introduced HR 1505. It would give the Department of Homeland Security "immediate access" to all federal lands within 100 miles of the nation's land and maritime borders.
The National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers supports Bishop's proposal as written, says Vice Chairman Zack Taylor. However, he says, the bill goes well beyond anything his organization requested.
"We were certain people wouldn't have any trouble with Border Patrol," Taylor explains. "But they do have a problem with people like" the Transportation Security Administration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "They don't like the idea of a national police force—and that's how they view where Homeland Security is going."
Taylor has worked for decades as an agent on the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona. He lives within sight of the mountains near Nogales where Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was gunned down by smugglers last year. He repeatedly uses the story to emphasize the Border Patrol's need for better access to federal lands.
But the choice to place such unfettered control in the hands of the Department of Homeland Security, instead of Border Patrol alone, gives Taylor pause. That isn't what the agents, the former officers or the Arizona residents Bishop talked to during several border tours pushed for, Taylor says.
Residents along the borders are "used to the guys in the green uniforms," Taylor says. "They've been seeing them for 75 or 80 years." Agents with other Homeland Security divisions "don't know where they're going," he adds, "and don't speak the local language."
Proponents of Bishop's bill have offered a long list of arguments in favor of awarding greater control of all borders to Homeland Security. Many in the Southwest quoted an October 2010 report from the Government Accountability Office, stating that a memorandum of understanding between federal enforcement agencies "has simply not worked." Rep. Denny Rehberg, a co-sponsor of the bill, pointed to recent criminal incidents in Montana, claiming that wilderness areas in the Northern Rockies have become "havens for criminal cartels."
"Remember the Arizona fugitives who hid out in Montana's back country?" Rehberg has said. "Or the nearly $8 million of marijuana recently found growing in the Lolo National Forest? Criminal cartels don't respect the Wilderness Act, therefore our Border Patrol is placed at a significant disadvantage."
The fugitives Rehberg mentioned were apprehended at a campground in Arizona after a three-week search. Details of the Lolo marijuana farm, which forest spokesman Brian Schulze said was an unusual case for his agency, have not been released.
The reasoning behind HR 1505 has been overshadowed in recent weeks by complaints that the bill would allow Homeland Security to disregard multiple environmental regulations. In September, Defenders of Wildlife listed HR 1505 among more than a dozen bills and provisions they say undermine the Endangered Species Act. And Interior Department spokeswoman Kim Thorsen testified in July that the bill would have a "significant impact" on her agency's ability to protect natural and cultural resources.
Even Sen. Jon Tester, who earlier this year voiced support for any "effective and affordable tool" to secure the country's borders, took a swing at the proposal. HR 1505 "is nowhere even close to effective or affordable," he says. "It gives one government agency supreme power to do whatever it wants without regard to rights or existing laws. It's as bad as the Patriot Act and REAL ID. Proposals like this may sound good to folks in Washington, D.C., but it is not acceptable or affordable for Montana."
The complaints haven't escaped Bishop. The House Natural Resources Committee, which he chairs, scheduled an Oct. 5 mark-up hearing on the bill. The exemptions from environmental review will likely remain untouched, he says, but he hopes to narrow his proposal's focus over the next month to address concerns like Taylor's, that the bill is too broad.
"It should be the same thing, since [the Border Patrol] gets their funding and control from Homeland Security," Bishop says. "However, when we change the bill and make the mark-up, that's one of the changes we're going to make, that this applies [only] to Border Patrol. In fact, it's not going to apply to maritime situations, because Border Patrol doesn't do that."
Meanwhile, the turf wars that prompted HR 1505 may not be playing out much in Montana. Robert Duff with the Havre Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol says his office has "very strong relationships with all the other partner agencies here, be it the other federal land management agencies, the tribal agencies, even the state and locals."
But Bishop says that giving the Border Patrol more unfettered access to lands near the Canadian border isn't so much a response to existing problems as a preemptive move against future criminal activity.
That's a point Taylor hammers relentlessly. "Drug and alien smuggling is a business, a for-profit business," he says. "They have to get the product into the United States before they can get paid...If we close the 17 corridors in Arizona that are on federal public land, are they going to quit smuggling this product, or are they going to find somewhere else to smuggle it?"