By Joshua Armstrong
Cronkite News Service
WASHINGTON - A House committee approved a bill Wednesday that would waive environmental regulations for Border Patrol activities within 100 miles of any U.S. border.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, has said his National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act clears up the Border Patrol's "checkerboard access," but environmental groups charge the bill does little to affect border security while risking protected lands and species.
The House Natural Resources Committee passed the bill, 26-17.
The measure would allow border agents to build fences, construct roads, set up monitoring equipment and patrol with vehicles on reservations and federal wildlands. It would apply to only the land borders with Canada and Mexico.
The Pew Environment Group said that means the Border Patrol would have waivers in places like Long Island and Northern California - far from the Southwest deserts typically associated with immigration and trafficking problems.
"It's horrible; it's unbelievable," said Dan Millis, borderlands campaign organizer for the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon chapter. "Those of us who live on the southern border have seen what these waivers have done, the environmental damage that occurs."
Areas along the U.S.-Mexico border are already exempt from many environmental protections under similar waivers. Millis said walls and infrastructure built under those provisions have caused flooding and eroded ranch land.
But the environmental impact of smugglers and people who cross the border illegally is worse than anything the Border Patrol might do, said Patrick Bray, executive vice president of the Arizona Cattle Growers' Association. He said border-crossers leave behind large amounts of trash, including numerous bicycles and, in some cases, automobiles.
"The damages created by (illegal border-crossers) are far more than what the Border Patrol could do," he said.
Bray said dealing with the land-management agencies still causes plenty of snags for agents, and that brings the Border Patrol agents to ask private landowners to help them instead.
"It puts it upon the private citizens," he said.
But critics charge that border security is not the true purpose of the bill. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, called it a Trojan-horse tactic to attack environmental protections, and that using immigration issues as cover is "a smart political ploy that could be detrimental to the American people."
"The intent is to set the precedent that these laws can be waived, they can be suspended - inevitably leading to the removal of most of those laws," he said.
He noted that the bill is opposed by Customs and Border Protection. The agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, already has effective working relationships with the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture, it said in a written statement in June, when the bill was up for a hearing.
Grijalva does not expect the bill to move far, certainly not past the Democrat-controlled Senate, nor to be signed into law by President Barack Obama.
"Still," he said, "we have to fight it."