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U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah
A controversial bill in the U.S. House of Representatives aimed at plugging the flow of illegal activity along America’s borders has pitted environmentalists and national park advocates against those championing national security.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, has proposed HR Bill 1505, the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act, which would prohibit the secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture from taking actions on public lands that impede border security, instead granting the secretary of Homeland Security immediate access to federal property on international land and maritime borders for the purpose of building a fence, patrolling and monitoring the borders.
Bishop claims the law is necessary because drug and human traffickers have been using federal parks and government-owned land as an easy highway system for crossing into the U.S. without interference from Border Patrol.
Environmentalists claim the law is too broad and would destroy wildlife habitats and wetlands along America’s borders, especially as patrol and construction vehicles come sweeping through.
Bishop counters, however, that Department of Interior policies keeping Border Patrol out of federal lands have only allowed a host of drug cartels and illegal immigrants in to make a mess of the habitat themselves.
“What many fail to recognize is that allowing the USBP to apprehend and deter trains of criminal traffickers will not only remedy weaknesses in border security, but also improve the health and vitality of our protected federal lands, which have been severely damaged by years of abuse from drug and human traffickers,” Bishop said in a statement when he first proposed the legislation last year. “National Security and a healthy environment are not mutually exclusive, however with current DOI policies, neither is being accomplished.”
Bishop explains the proposed legislation was motivated by the plight of one American who tried to warn the government of international illegal activity in federal lands.
In 2007, Arizona rancher Rob Krentz and his wife, Sue, wrote to Congress about the “war over drugs and immigration” already going on in the Tumacacori Highlands Wilderness Area near the Mexican border.
Krentz complained that the area had “already been trashed by illegal immigrants who leave ribbons of garbage along their well defined trails” and told Congress, “We are in fear for our lives and safety and health.”
Then last year, Krentz, whose family has been ranching in southern Arizona since 1907, was gunned down by a criminal that entered and exited the U.S. through the San Bernardino Wildlife Refuge.
After visiting the U.S. border with Mexico and inspecting evidence of illegal activity moving through federal lands, Bishop proposed the bill one month after Krentz’s death.
“National security continues to be jeopardized along the border by denying USBP access to federal border lands,” a Bishop press release claimed at the time. “DOI cites environmental concerns as the reason for blocking entry into federal land areas, but the lands they seek to protect are already being damaged and overrun by those coming across the border illegally. Due to the USBP’s lack of access, unpatrolled federal border lands have become a direct and inaccessible artery into the U.S. for drug smuggling, human trafficking, terrorist, arms trafficking and other criminal activity.”
Bishop’s proposed solution, however, has met with sharp criticism.
The Pew Environment Group condemned the bill, calling it a “sweeping waiver of the nation’s bedrock environmental and land management laws” that has little to do with accomplishing the goal of national security.
“Instead, the proposed legislation would give unprecedented authority to a single federal agency to destroy wildlife habitat and wetlands, impair downstream water quality and restrict activities such as hunting, fishing and grazing,” said Jane Danowitz, director of U.S. public lands for Pew. “It would leave Congress and the public without a voice, even though at stake are hundreds of popular destinations.”
Bishop, however, argues, “The gravity of the situation must no longer be ignored. This legislation helps ensure that DOI policies no longer enable dangerous criminals to co-opt federal border lands as their drug trafficking highways.”
A report in Cape Cod’s Provincetown Banner reports that areas in which environmental laws would be waived under the proposed law include the entire border of Alaska, most of Puerto Rico, all of Hawaii, all of Florida, Olympic National Park and Mt. Rainer National Park in Washington, Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, Big Bend National Park in Texas, Acadia National Park in Maine and Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina.
Bishop’s office has created a promotional fact sheet on HR 1505, which currently has 41 cosponsors and earlier this month endured a hearing before the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, of which Bishop is the chairman.