PUBLIC LANDS:

DHS's tech-heavy security plan raises conservation concerns along Canadian border

The Department of Homeland Security is proposing a plan to expand the use of cameras, aerial drones and ground patrols to secure the nation's 4,000-mile border with Canada.

The Customs and Border Protection proposal is a more tech-heavy approach than its southern border strategy, which included construction of a controversial border fence, forward operating bases and infrastructure that critics argued have harmed wildlife habitats.

Still, national parks and wilderness advocates said they are concerned the agency's draft plan for the northern border could clear the way for new roads, vehicle barriers or fencing on more than 15 million acres of federal lands in the West.

The agency's draft record of decision last July said activities would be limited to surveillance and detection, but that more aggressive steps such as fences could be used if cross-border threats intensify.

A final record of decision is expected soon.

"If you're in a national park, you don't want to be hiking along a trail and see this beautiful vista disrupted by transmission towers or forward operating bases, which are one possibility in the plan," said David Graves, the Seattle-based Northwest program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.

Such projects could disrupt migration routes for animals including the endangered grizzly and could tarnish scenic viewsheds in North Cascades, Glacier and Voyageurs national parks, among others, he said.

The CBP plan underscores the inherent tensions between the Border Patrol, which is tasked with guarding and controlling the nation's borders, and land management agencies in charge of protecting wildlife and recreation on public lands.

It comes months after Republicans in Congress passed a bill exempting CBP from more than a dozen environmental laws on federal lands within 100 miles of the border to construct roads, fences, operating bases and surveillance equipment.

The agency declined to comment for this article.

But in its environmental review, it emphasized that it is not contemplating a "border fence" and that it must obtain permission from the Interior Department or Forest Service before maintaining roads or installing surveillance equipment on federal lands.

"Improved border security will exist when CBP is able to stay abreast of current border activities," the agency said in its final programmatic environmental impact statement released in July, "that is, to maintain situational awareness, determine the level of threat involved in given situations, and work in collaborative partnerships with local, state, and tribal law enforcement partners."

The preferred alternative would improve "situational awareness" using upgraded surveillance and telecommunications systems such as remote sensors, short-range radar, and remote and mobile video surveillance and communications systems. It is designed to more quickly identify threats, improve agent and officer communications, and deploy personnel to resolve incidents with greater efficiency.

West of the Rocky Mountains, where approximately half of the affected lands are federally owned, the proposal calls for about 1,300 additional ground surveillance and about 23 new aircraft missions per day over the next five to seven years. The region would also see about 100 small construction projects such as towers and other infrastructure to mount antennas.

Affected federal lands could include the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie, Okanogan, Idaho Panhandle, Colville and Kootenai national forests; the Mount Baker, Stephen Mather, Pasayten and Salmo-Priest wilderness areas; and North Cascades and Glacier national parks.

The agency said the PEIS is a "reference document" and that any site-specific projects would be subject to a separate National Environmental Policy Act review.

'Vast and varied terrain'

Still, the National Park Service said it is concerned that lights, increased patrols with all-terrain vehicles or snowmobiles and increased aircraft use could affect visitors, endangered wildlife, cultural resources and night skies at Glacier and North Cascades.

"Park visitors have a reasonable expectation of privacy and solitude, especially in wilderness," Chip Jenkins, then-superintendent of North Cascades, said in comments to CBP obtained by Greenwire.

A coalition of nearly a dozen environmental groups including the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and Center for Biological Diversity a year ago warned that the draft environmental review was too broad, failed to include key stakeholders and could threaten endangered wildlife.

"It is hard to imagine a single document adequately describing such a vast and varied terrain, much less offering a full discussion of the wide variety of impacts that may occur from the plethora of vaguely described actions that are included in the draft PEIS," the groups wrote in comments to CBP. "A project of this magnitude, with such sweeping geographic breadth, requires much more extensive public outreach than has so far occurred."

The groups warned that species including grizzly, lynx, wolverine and woodland caribou rely on safe, unfettered travel between the United States and Canada.

Others urged CBP to take seriously the cultural, recreational and ecological impacts its activities may have across the border.

"Of course we support reasonable and effective border security," said Michelle Connor, co-chairman of the Skagit Environmental Endowment Commission, which was established under a 1984 treaty with Canada and is tasked with conserving and protecting wilderness and wildlife habitat in the Skagit Valley north of Seattle.

Aggressive security measures aren't needed in the watershed, Connor said.

"Considering the remote terrain and the people who visit this area, we see little value in an intrusive, militarized presence," she said. "This is not a likely conduit either for drugs or terrorism or other unlawful activity."

In fiscal 2011, the Border Patrol apprehended 328,000 illegal aliens along the southwest border, compared with 6,000 along the northern border, according to agency statistics. But DHS has said the terrorist threat is greater on the northern border due to geographic scope and limited law enforcement coverage.

Wilderness advocates said they are encouraged the agency has pledged to conduct additional environmental reviews of security projects but that Congress has given DHS too much power to waive those laws if it sees fit.

Wilderness Watch, a Missoula, Mont.-based group, in October released a report warning that 73 wildernesses areas covering more than 32 million acres in a dozen states are threatened by border security measures along the Canadian border.

The report criticizes Congress' passage of the REAL ID Act of 2005, which allows the secretary of DHS to waive any federal laws in order to "ensure expeditious construction of barriers and roads" along the borders. Former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff in 2008 waived 37 laws including the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act, the 1906 Antiquities Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the 1916 National Park Service Organic Act to expedite construction of fencing along 500 miles of the Mexican border.

With "a stroke of a pen," the agency could waive federal laws that currently protect wildernesses along the northern border, the report said.

"Congress should never have put so much power in the hands of a single, unelected bureaucrat," said George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch, "and it's imperative that it put that power back in the hands of elected officials and the public process where it belongs."

The House in June passed a bill by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) that would allow the agency to waive many of the same environmental laws on federal lands within 100 miles of both borders (E&E Daily, June 20).

An Interior Department official said concerns over CBP's northern border plan are overblown.

Compared with CBP's southern border strategy, "this one's pretty noncontroversial," said the Interior source, who agreed to speak only on background.

"It's an attempt on their part, and I commend them on this, to document some of their activities on the northern border," he said. Interior has "no substantive concerns" about the CBP plan, he added.

A 2006 memorandum of understanding among Interior, the Forest Service and DHS has helped guide efforts to crack down on the illegal entry of drugs, humans, weapons and terrorists along the Canadian and Mexican borders.

It recognizes that Border Patrol access to federal lands "can facilitate the rescue of cross-border violators, protect these lands from environmental damage, and have a role in protecting wilderness and wildlife resources."

It also sets protocols for the construction of surveillance equipment and barriers, access to motorized routes and the pursuit of suspects into wilderness areas.

Want to read more stories like this?

E&E is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy politics and policy.

Click here to start a free trial to E&E -- the best way to track policy and markets.