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U.S. House To Consider Legislation Opponents Believe Would Degrade Public Lands, National Parks


A package of legislation that sponsors call the Conservation and Economic Growth Act and which critics maintain would severely cripple the nation's environmental laws and pose a threat to the National Park System is expected to come up for a vote in the House of Representatives this week.

The package, if it managed to become law, would give the U.S. Border Patrol wide-ranging access to lands managed by the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and other federal lands that lie within 100 miles of an international border. The access is needed, the package's proponents say, so the Border Patrol can have greater success controlling access to the United States.

Environmental laws and regulations set aside by one piece of the package, H.R. 1505, include The Wilderness Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Antiquities Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, the Fish and Wildlife Act, the National Park Service Organic Act, and the National Parks and Recreation Act, among others.

“We have all heard the current Administration tout that the border is more secure than ever before. How they arrive at this conclusion remains a mystery given that, without access to the entire border region including all public lands, we can never truly be sure how many people manage to enter illegally and manage to completely evade detection," said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, the prime architect of the legislation. "We know drug and human trafficking continues to occur on federal land, the trails leading in the upwards of 100 miles north of the border speak for themselves. The only way we are ever going to reach our goal of having a truly secure border is by allowing the Border Patrol to access and patrol the federal property where the incursions occur. This legislation is an important first step toward that goal."

Parks that fall within that 100-mile swath include Big Bend, Isle Royale, Everglades, Biscayne, Dry Tortugas, Glacier, North Cascades, Voyageurs, Virgin Islands, Olympic, Redwoods, Channel Islands, and all the national seashores.

At the National Parks Conservation Association, officials say this package is misguided, over-reaching, and unnecessary.

"No government agency should be above the law, yet H.R. 1505 would allow the Department of Homeland Security unfettered authority to ignore laws that protect our fish and wildlife, national parks, forests, and historic sites. The proposal even waives the Administrative Procedure Act, which prohibits federal agencies from engaging in arbitrary and capricious treatment under the law," the parks advocacy organization said in a prepared statement.

"Ironically, the federal agency that would receive this unfettered authority said it does not want it, doesn't need it, and shouldn't have it. According to Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano, this legislation 'is unnecessary, and it's bad policy.'"

In the past the Government Accountability Office has looked into the question of whether environmental regulations and laws are handcuffing the Border Patrol in its operations and concluded they are not. Rather, the GAO has found, the rugged landscape of the Southwest and initially poor communications between various federal agencies have impeded progress.

According to the most recent GAO report, which had been requested by Rep. Bishop and which was based on materials gathered between December 2009 and October 2010, while illegal immigration and drug trafficking along the border continued to be a pressing issue, apprehensions of illegal aliens peaked at 1.65 million per year in the late 1990s before dropping to a low of 540,000 in 2009. The decline was attributed to fewer jobs for illegal immigrants in the United States as well as increased border control, the GAO noted.

As to Rep. Bishop's contention that environmental laws such as the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act were impeding the Border Patrol in its task, the GAO report found that while these regulations at times led to delays and restrictions for Border Patrol agents in accessing federal lands, "22 of the 26 Border Patrol stations reported that the border security status of their area of operation has not been affected by land management laws."

Several other measures contained in the omnibus package of bills, H.R. 2578, also would harm the park system, according to NPCA.

* Building a costly road in an area known for severe floods - (Title VI- North Cascades) This provision allows the reconstruction of the upper sections of Stehekin River Road within the North Cascades National Park. According to the Federal Highway Administration it would cost roughly $1.5 million (2004 dollars) to build a road rerouted through wilderness. This estimate is likely low given the fact that further erosion by the river has occurred since the analysis was conducted in 2006. According to the National Park Service, prior to the 2003 floods only a few thousand people traveled the road. Reconstructing this little-used route is a phenomenal waste of money at a time of budget austerity.

* Allowing vehicles to harm bird and turtle nests at Cape Hatteras National Seashore – (Title X – Cape Hatteras) This legislation undermines the National Park Service’s carefully drafted plan that protects families visiting the beaches and nesting shorebirds and turtles while still allowing vehicles on many beaches. Since 2008 when protections for wildlife were put in place, the number of nesting shorebirds and turtle nests has rebounded. In addition, Seashore visitation has been stable or increasing, and the local tourism board has also shown growth in revenue, despite the ongoing national economic crisis. This legislation would eliminate sensible safeguards to preserve Cape Hatteras National Seashore for future generations to explore and enjoy and wildlife to thrive.

* Unnecessary possible agreements between the National Park Service and other corporations - (Title III - Southeast Alaska) NPCA is opposed to all language in this bill that directs the National Park Service to enter into a cooperative agreement with Sealaska Corporation, or any other Village or Urban Corporation. The existing Memorandum of Understanding between the National Park Service and the Hoonah Indian Association already addresses the needs and concerns set out in the Sealaska Bill for “Sacred, Cultural, Traditional and Historic Sites” that may be found in Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve. Any additional cooperative agreements would be redundant and could create conflict between contradictory interests.

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I just returned from a town hall meeting hosted by Rep. Rob Bishop. I took the opportunity to confront him with the discrepancies between what he is telling us about the border security vs wilderness and parks issue and what I'd heard from people who actually are working in border protection in Arizona. I pointed out that while down in ORPI I had been able to speak with Superintendent Lee Baisza, with six national park rangers, and later with eight different Border Patrol officers and one man who works for the Arizona Department of Public Safety as a supervisor at an electronic surveillance center in Gila Bend. I recounted how every one of those people told me that the capture rate within wilderness areas is actually higher than on private or non-wilderness lands. I told the group that every one of those people felt that the story told by Rep. Bishop is simply false.

Rep. Bishop became quite angry and defensive. (Behavior that he used to display frequently when other teachers disagreed with him back when we taught in the same school district.) He angrily called Supt. Baisza a "jerk" and let us know in no uncertain terms that he does not hold him with any positive regards. He then claimed that the Border Patrol agents had been under orders from the Department of Homeland Security and Secretary Janet Napolitano to say what they had said. He stated that Sec. Napolitano has been told by someone that she must now stop dictating to her employees what they are to say in public. He then claimed that if I were visit the border area now, I would certainly hear a different story from those people.

He claimed that when he has talked with BP agents, they have told him an entirely different set of "facts." He singled out Supt. Baisza with a story about how the superintendent delayed a simple move of a portable electronic device for several months simply to spite efforts by Bishop to "gain control" of the border. There was also a rather rambling account that had something to do with a helipad.

Later, however, when another person in the very Bishop-friendly crowd asked how an ordinary citizen can make a difference, Bishop replied that one way is to take an interest in what is happening and then, if you have an opinion on the matter, tell other people. Try to spread the word for what you believe. He turned to me and told me that is what I need to do if I believe he is wrong.

I assured him that I would continue to do just that.

A Memorandum of .understanding does not give the legal authority to transfer federal funds to the partners is this relationship. A cooperative agreement does. Be careful what you ask for!

Unfortunately I believe the Bill that is trying to be passed is a way to route money somewhere else. I have worked in border parks and let me tell you, Border Patrol has free reign of the land. The only thing Border Patrol cannot do is drive their ATV's on the roads and off-road causing them to get out of thier vehicles (like we rangers do) and walk around a bit. My opinion is just general, I am sure there are several BP agents that are hard chargers and do their job very well. I think this Bill has some background language that isnt being talked about. I do know that DHS gives money to maintanence to certain parks to keep backcountry roads on the border maintained so that they can drive (BP Agents) their vehicles without problems. I w

The attitude that is concerning to me that is evident in many resource managers today is a weighted stridency toward protecting the resource walling off many opportunities for individuals to experience the intimate connections that the resource workers hold dear. I understand the challenges very well of protecting the resource but it shouldn't be an either or extreme. There's a learning curve of connection to these wild places and appreciating individual visitors in that process leaves the door open to them to grow in intimacy with them should be an integral part of the effort. The temptation to reduce the equation to an attitude of protecting the resource from the masses alienates the very important human benefits that the wild places impart, I believe.

WOW! A degree in resource management? Is it a BS?

... allows vehicles to harm birds and turtle nests at Cape Hatteras... what hogwash. What the legislation would do is allow people to access their national seashore and allow locals to make a living. As it stands now both are severely restricted - and this includes those without ORV's. I have a degree in Resource Management and I say people should come first.

Yes Rick, no question that Congress, existing laws or anything else keeps the current President from his destiny. Well, maybe the election. With both houses and the Presidency in lock step up to not quite the last year and a half, your argument is weak it would appear. There's always Bush and Cheney's fault, respectfully. The drug runners, illegals, the President of Mexico and the present US administration all want the border open and unrestricted, it appears.

'No question' ... because the Congress has been so supportive of enabling anything the current President wants?

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