A bill to let Department of Homeland Security personnel waive three dozen environmental laws to enhance border patrols on public lands passed the Natural Resources Committee this morning largely unchanged from the amended bill that was unveiled earlier this week.
National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee Chairman Rob Bishop's (R-Utah) proposal to allow U.S. Customs and Border Protection unfettered access to public lands along the nation's Mexican and Canadian borders passed on a 26-17 party-line vote.
One amendment by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the subcommittee's ranking member, to allow border agents to also bypass federal mineral laws, passed on a voice vote. The measure would prevent the Mineral Leasing Act and General Mining Law, which authorize projects such as oil and gas wells or hardrock mines, from obstructing border security.
Separate language added to the bill this week seeks to protect existing legal uses including grazing and mining.
"Our border patrol tells us what they need is access," Bishop said. "This bill simply removes the impediments, the prohibitions, the obstructions."
The bill bars the Interior and Agriculture departments from enforcing environmental laws, including the Wilderness Act, National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act, and from impeding, prohibiting or restricting the work of the border patrol on public lands within 100 miles of the Mexican and Canadian borders.
A substitute amendment to the bill this week removed maritime borders and added five-year sunset language, in addition to clarifying which border patrol activities can bypass environmental laws (E&E Daily, Oct. 5).
A separate amendment by Grijalva to exempt American Indian lands from the bill failed on 25-13 vote. Grijalva said he feared the bill would allow border agents to violate tribal sovereignty and potentially trample sacred sites with motorized vehicles.
"Native people would once again be left with no recourse for the violation of their sovereign rights," he said.
Bishop opposed the amendment, arguing that it would put a target on the backs of tribal reservations for drug smugglers and other undocumented immigrants to cross the border.
"The remote areas are an attraction to the very worst element of the drug cartels," he said.
Bishop said it was "gut wrenching" to hear the extent of lawlessness on the border, where land access restrictions have led to a spike in murders and rapes, diversion fires, litter and weakened protections for sensitive species.
But the bill is opposed by the Obama administration and has drawn fierce opposition from environmental groups that argue it is a veiled attempt to eviscerate a century of bedrock conservation laws.
Democrats on the committee echoed those concerns today.
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the committee's ranking member, framed his opening statement in terms coined by advocates who fight illegal immigration.
"Land management laws are not impairing border security," he said. "The conflict ... is completely undocumented." He added that Republicans were trying to sneak fundamental changes to environmental laws "without any papers."
"We will not keep illegal drugs out of our country by letting smog into the lungs of children," he said. "We will not honor our national sovereignty by trampling the sovereign rights of native people."
Bishop argued that opponents have misrepresented Government Accountability Office reports that suggest environmental laws are not the root cause of problems hampering border security. He added that line officers in DHS paint a different story and suggest the agency's written agreement with land management agencies to coordinate their respective missions has not worked on the ground.
Bishop's bill extends the same environmental waiver authority in the Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 that DHS used in 2008 to construct the U.S.-Mexico border fence.
But Jane Danowitz, Pew Environment Group's director of U.S. public lands, said the "bill's reach is unprecedented. It would allow a single federal agency the authority to waive clean air and water laws, as well as those that protect parks and other public lands. It would leave Congress and the public without a voice."