Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Federal legislation pits environment vs. security

Federal authorities can't secure sections of the U.S. border because of environmental laws that block access to public lands and slow efforts to stop drug smugglers and illegal immigrants, say backers of legislation that would waive those laws along the border. But conservation groups say the congressional bills, two in the U.S. House and one in the Senate, create solutions for non-existent problems and are largely driven by opportunistic, anti-environmental lawmakers who want to weaken laws they always have opposed. The proposals thrust together two of the West's most volatile issues, border security and environmental regulation, and pit activists on both sides in a fight that likely will spill over into the 2012 elections. The dispute is centered on thousands of acres of public lands along the border, most of them under the jurisdiction of federal agencies that enforce an array of restrictive environmental regulations. Supporters of the bills say the rules impede quick action on the border and give land-management agencies more authority over national-security decisions than the security agencies. "The different trails that drug smugglers and human smugglers use change depending on where Border Patrol agents are stationed," said Rep. Ben Quayle, R-Ariz., author of one of the three bills. "Our agents need to have the ability to move quickly. But sometimes it's taking as much as four months to get them through all the hoops." Quayle's bill would give the U.S. Customs and Border Protection ready access to federal lands for security activities, including motorized patrols and the deployment of temporary tactical infrastructure, such as surveillance equipment. The agencies would be directed to protect natural and cultural resources as much as possible, but they would not be forced to comply with land-management rules. The unrestricted access would extend 150 miles from the U.S.-Mexican border, a distance that would stretch north of Phoenix. Republican Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl included a similar provision in a broader border-security bill, waiving environmental laws within the same 150-mile band along the southwestern border...more

McCain and Kyl are looking at 150 miles, while Bingaman is going all out to protect our border by granting a band of...5 miles. The rest of the quarter of a million acres of wilderness in his bill is off limits to law enforcement.

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