Many of us remember when Jon Tester won his Senate seat. We hoped to see him fulfill his campaign promises to repeal the Patriot Act, end the wars and bring some sanity back to Washington, D.C. But then, to the surprise of many Tester supporters, he began to talk about the supposed dangers of "Montana's porous northern border." It was, in the finest tradition of Congressional pork, merely a tool to bring Homeland Security funds to Montana. But now, Tester is reaping what he sowed in the form of new, extremely radical legislation—H.R. 1505—that gives the Department of Homeland Security authority over all federal lands, including national parks and wilderness areas, within 100 miles of international borders. It's co-sponsored by Tester's Senate challenger, Rep. Denny Rehberg, and Tester is opposing it.
Before going into the details of this nightmare legislation, former Independent reporter John S. Adams deserves a tip of the hat for bringing it to the attention of Montanans in an article in the Great Falls Tribune this week.
H.R. 1505 is, like so much legislation in Congress in recent years, facetiously titled to appear to do exactly the opposite of what it actually does. According to the Library of Congress, the purpose of the "National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act" is "to prohibit the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture from taking action on public lands which impede border security on such lands, and for other purposes." In plain language, that means stopping the Departments of Interior and Agriculture, which would include the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and Forest Service (among others), from fulfilling the missions of their agencies. Hard to see how that could be interpreted as "protecting" federal lands, but Congress seems perfectly happy to ignore such Orwellian titles these days.
The bill exempts the Department of Homeland Security from some 36 existing laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Park Service Organic Act, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Noise Control Act, the Solid Waste Disposal Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (Superfund), the Antiquities Act of 1906, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Farmland Protection Policy Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, the Wilderness Act, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, the Fish and Wildlife Act, the Administrative Procedures Act, the California Desert Protection Act, the National Park Service Organic Act, sections of the National Parks and Recreation Act, the Arizona Desert Wilderness Act, the Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act, and even the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act.
Besides exempting Homeland Security from the nation's foundational environmental and historic preservation laws, it specifically states that "the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture shall not impede, prohibit, or restrict activities of the Secretary of Homeland Security on land under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture to achieve operational control over the international land and maritime borders of the United States."
Regardless of the impacts to any and all who use and treasure these federal lands, the legislation gives Homeland Security "immediate access to any public land managed by the Federal Government (including land managed by the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture) for purposes of conducting activities that assist in securing the border (including access to maintain and construct roads, construct a fence, use vehicles to patrol, and set up monitoring equipment)."
How ironic is it that under this draconian piece of legislation that's supposed to "protect" our lands, the Department of Homeland Security could, without permits, environmental analysis, or anything else, decide to cut a road right through the middle of the Glacier-Waterton International Peace Park? The agency could also put up towers with lights and armed guards, fly and land helicopters or run ATVs in wilderness areas, or even construct a fence if they so chose, with absolutely no recourse for citizens to challenge their own government's actions, except on constitutional grounds.
You read that right: HR1505 also exempts Homeland Security from any judicial review except for constitutional challenges. It's likely even that would be exempted, except that it would destroy the checks and balances upon which our government is founded and would itself be constitutionally prohibited.
Apparently, Rep. Rehberg didn't have the time or imagination to consider the problems such an act might cause. He told Adams, "The simple idea of the bill is to provide the border patrol with the same access on federal land that it currently has on state and private land. There is nothing about this bill that creates any new authority to intrude into the lives of Americans."
Speaking of irony, Tester, who first cried wolf over the "porous Northern border," told Adams the act was on par with the Patriot Act and REAL ID in terms of granting the federal government unprecedented and overreaching powers, adding, "I just can't see how any lawmaker would think it's a good idea to allow the Department of Homeland Security to make sweeping decisions about our land and ignore our rights without any public accountability."
Tester's absolutely right on this issue, and I guess we can be thankful for that. This kind of legislation shows how totally out of touch with reality the hyper-paranoid Congressional Republicans have become. Canadians, after all, have been our friends and allies for more than 200 years.
H.R.1505 should never become law. But even if it doesn't, let's remember Rehberg's co-sponsorship of this horrendous bill at the voting booths a year from now.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.