Despite two Government Accountability Office reports that say environmental regulations are not impeding the work of the Border Patrol, Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee are standing by that claim.
Last week, in the wake of the fatal shooting of a Border Patrol officer in Arizona, the GOP membership on the committee issued a press release stating that "(T)his is the latest violent crime to occur on federal areas along the U.S. border where environmental policies, enforced by Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture land managers, are hindering Border Patrol’s ability to do their job."
"As a result, our federal lands have become a highway open to criminals, drugs (sic) smugglers, human traffickers and potentially terrorists – leading to escalated violence and severe destruction of the environment," the release added.
U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, who is in line to chair the House subcommittee on national parks, was even more strident:
"It’s no secret why criminal organizations entering the U.S. from Mexico strategically target federal lands as the most ideal and secure route to traffic drugs, smuggle humans and carry out a host of other criminal acts," the congressman said. "Strict environmental regulations are enabling a culture of unprecedented lawlessness that has led to numerous deaths on federal lands...
“I am outraged by the current administration’s inaction and refusal to address the immediate need to secure our federal lands. Despite the inherent need, and the loss of far too many lives on federal lands, Secretary Salazar and others in the current administration continue to place radical special interest policies over the security of this country," he said.
But reports point to lack of resources, not environmental regulations, as well as weak coordination and communications as the greatest impediments to border security. And U.S. Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, said in the wake of the slaying of agent Brian Terry in a shootout near Rio Rico, Arizona, that "(T)he increased violence in the border region demands that Congress provide the necessary resources and personnel to ensure the safety of all Americans, especially border patrol agents stationed on the border, and fulfill the federal government’s responsibility to secure our border."
Two studies released earlier this fall by the GAO, including one conducted at the request of Mr. Bishop, concluded that environmental laws were not impeding the Border Patrol. In that report the GAO determined that while environmental regulations at times slowed Border Patrol operations in the Southwest, an overwhelming majority of agents-in-charge "reported that the overall security status of their jurisdiction is not affected by land management laws."
A far greater problem, the agents-in-charge told the GAO investigators, is the lay of the land in the Southwest.
"... factors other than access delays or restrictions, 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," the GAO noted in that report.
In mid-November another GAO report (also covered in a Traveler article today), this one requested by U.S. Sens. Joseph Lieberman, Charles Grassley, George Voinovich, and Jon Tester, cited a lack of communication and coordination between the federal agencies as an overriding problem in efforts to control the border.
That report specifically noted that "(O)perational and threat assessments indicated that patrolling environmentally sensitive areas was challenging, but access to these areas was not a primary factor to achieving operational control of the border."
In a footnote to that statement the GAO added that, "Border Patrol officials said that they are not limited in their ability to conduct motorized off-road operations in environmentally sensitive areas in conducting border security operations. The Border Patrol’s authority to conduct off-road operations in these areas is outlined in the 2006 MOU between DHS, DOI, and USDA."
Indeed, that 2006 memorandum of understanding gave the Border Patrol unlimited motorized access to officially designated wilderness areas. It did require the Border Patrol to report, after the fact, to the administering land manager when the incursions occurred and what they entailed.
At Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a particularly hot spot when it comes to drug runners and illegal aliens, the Border Patrol made more than 400 such wilderness incursions in 2009, according to Superintendent Lee Baiza.
“Within those 405 incursions, they traveled over 2,500 miles through Organ Pipe," the superintendent said during an interview Friday. "So, if we are prohibiting Border Patrol from doing their work, I would just challenge that comment from the standpoint that the '06 MOU allows them" access to wilderness areas.
"In 2009, with these numbers, when you plot those on a map, you can specifically see that they are going all over the monument," he added.
Nevertheless, Congressman Bishop's staff maintained that environmental laws such as The Wilderness Act and the Endangered Species Act were "hindering" the Border Patrol from doing its job.
"The ability of some Border Patrol agents to gain full operational control of the entire southern border region have been hindered by regulations put in place by land managers enforcing ESA and the Wilderness Act, just to name a couple," Melissa Subbotin, the congressman's press secretary, wrote in an email Friday. "Additionally, the NEPA process has made it impossible in some cases for the Border Patrol to place monitoring and sensor devices in strategically targeted areas, instead having to settle for areas with obstructed views."
According to Superintendent Baiza, however, monitoring towers were successfully erected in Organ Pipe, albeit after initial designs were changed to keep the towers out of official wilderness, and are providing the desired coverage.
“The challenge comes when you have projects like SBInet (Secure Border Initiative Network)," the superintendent said. "Placement of some of this infrastructure in wilderness becomes challenging. We worked the past couple of years in Organ Pipe to install five towers. There are nine total in this mix, but five are still within Organ Pipe. All five of those are outside of wilderness. ... We were able to get the optimum coverage that was initially expected out of the project."
While the second of the GAO reports called for more coordination between the Department of Homeland Security, Interior Department, and Agricultural Department, along with more personnel and technology for the Border Patrol and those agencies, the House Republicans do not voice support for those needs. Instead, they propose legislation that would, essentially, grant immunity to the Border Patrol from provisions of the Endangered Species Act, The Wilderness Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.
Ms. Subbotin, who said the 2006 MOU "has not solved problems of cooperation between agencies," maintained such authority was necessary for the Border Patrol to be successful. She pointed to various sections of the GAO report requested by her boss that described delays the Border Patrol encountered due to various regulations.
One section, on page 22, notes that "(P)atrol agents-in-charge of 17 of 26 stations along the southwestern border reported that they have experienced delays and restrictions in patrolling and monitoring portions of federal lands because of various land management laws. Specifically, patrol agents-in-charge of 14 of the 17 stations reported that they have been unable to obtain a permit or permission to access certain areas in a timely manner because of how long it takes for land managers to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act."
"In addition, 3 of 17 stations reported that their agents’ ability to access portions of federal lands has been affected by Wilderness Act restrictions on the creation of additional roads and installation of structures, such as SBInet towers. Furthermore, 5 of the 17 stations reported that as a result of consultations under section 7 of the Endangered Species Act, their agents had to change the timing or specific location of ground and air patrols because endangered species were present in these areas."
Ms. Subbotin said she had accompanied Rep. Bishop to areas along the Southwestern border and that "we heard from numerous agents that environmental restrictions unquestionably hinder their ability to do their jobs. I don’t know what further proof is needed."
Yet the GAO report not only cited 22 of 26 Border Patrol stations as saying environmental regulations had not affected the "security status" of their operations, but also pointed out that delays that did arise could have been shortened if the Border Patrol "used its own resources to pay for, or perform, environmental and historic property assessments required by the National Environmental Policy Act and National Historic Preservation Act." The use of programmatic environmental impact statements also could have reduced delays, the GAO said.
"By completing a programmatic environmental impact statement, Border Patrol and land management agencies could then subsequently prepare narrower, site-specific statements or assessments of proposed Border Patrol activities on federal lands, such as on a mobile surveillance system site alone, thus potentially expediting access," the report noted.
Yet another report that examined border issues, Interagency Cooperation on U.S.-Mexico Border Wilderness Issues, found that while there were, early on, operational issues, "cooperation among federal departments and agencies charged with protection of the border and wilderness areas has been improving in the past few years. Departmental leadership has issued several policy directives and put in place organizational mechanisms that have created a framework for collaboration and conflict resolution among the departments and their respective agencies on the ground."