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.