WASHINGTON — In a move aimed at improving national security, House Republicans want to give the U.S. Border Patrol unprecedented authority to ignore 36 environmental laws on federal land in a 100-mile zone stretching along the Canadian and Mexican borders.
If the legislation is approved, the Border Patrol would not have to comply with the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Solid Waste Disposal Act and 32 other federal laws in such popular places as Olympic National Park, Glacier Park, the Great Lakes and the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area.
Under the GOP plan, the Border Patrol would have free rein to do such things as build roads and offices, put up fences, set up surveillance equipment and sensors, and use aircraft and vehicles to patrol in all national parks, forests and federal land included in the 100-mile zone.
Republican Rep. Doc Hastings of Pasco, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the Border Patrol "has become encumbered with layers of environmental regulations," making it difficult to deal with drug smugglers, human traffickers and other criminals who are targeting public lands along the U.S. borders.
The committee passed the plan on a 26-17 party-line vote earlier this month.
A vote by the full House is expected soon, though no date has been set, and similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate.
In Washington, where the zone would include nearly half the state, Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire is questioning why such a law is needed. She noted that the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Border Patrol, has not requested the change.
"The current approach, partnering with sister agencies - Interior and USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) - seems a reasonable approach," Gregoire said.
Environmental groups say they're alarmed by the proposal.
Jane Danowitz, the Pew Environment Group's director of public lands, called the plan a sweeping waiver of environmental laws that would allow a single federal agency to destroy wildlife habitat and wetlands and hurt water quality.
"We're talking about waiving laws that protect habitat and clean air and clean water in national parks and other beloved places that Americans really cherish - and that belong to all of us," she said.
Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee and the bill's chief sponsor, said the legislation is needed because the Border Patrol lacks sufficient access to millions of acres of federally-controlled land.
"The policies of the United States unfortunately and unwittingly make it easier for illegals to come across public lands," he said.
While the Border Patrol has access to federal lands, it must follow procedures set up by other agencies. The bill would change that by giving the Border Patrol immediate access to any federal land. And it would specifically bar the U.S. Department of Interior and the USDA from "impeding, prohibiting or restricting" any work done by the Border Patrol in the 100-mile zone. The law would expire in five years.
At a hearing of Bishop's subcommittee in July, the Obama administration said it opposed the legislation and argued it's unnecessary.
Kim Thorsen, a deputy assistant secretary with the Department of Interior, said that a better way to protect the border would be to use "the current approach of collaborating among departments and using the best expertise in each to solve problems."
"We also believe that these two objectives - securing our borders and conserving our federal lands - are not mutually exclusive," she said. "We are not faced with a choice between the two. Instead, we can - and should - do both."
John Leshy, a professor at the U.C. Hastings College of the Law, told the subcommittee that he questions whether such a law would be constitutional, calling the bill "the most breathtakingly extreme legislative proposal of its kind I have ever seen."
"I firmly believe this legislation goes way, way beyond what is necessary and proper, in our constitutional system, to enforce the immigration laws," Leshy said.
Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey, the top-ranked Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, called the bill shortsighted and "just nonsense."
"Expert after expert has explained to House Republicans that waiving all environmental protections affecting the air, water and entire ecosystems within 100 miles of our borders is not the answer to border security challenges, but they turned a deaf ear with this misguided legislation," Markey said.
Backers of the legislation have enlisted support from a wide variety of groups, including the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, United Four-Wheel Drive Associations, the National Association of Police Organizations and the Motorcycle Industry Council. The motorcycle group said that an unsecured border "that allows terrorists or other lawbreakers to roam our public lands represents a real threat to riders who wish to responsibly recreate near these lands."
The legislation has been a work in progress for the GOP.
At first, backers wanted to create a 100-mile zone that would extend around the entire nation. But as a compromise, they scaled back the proposal, dropping off federal land that borders the West and East coasts.
As a result, the zone now stretches from Washington to Maine in the north, and from California to Texas in the south.
The bill, which the GOP calls the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act, is part of the 2010 "Pledge to America," in which Republicans vowed to give the Border Patrol more "tools and authorities to establish operational control" along the U.S. borders.
Hastings called it an attempt "to prioritize national security over bureaucratic red tape."
Danowitz said House Republicans are trying to use national security as a reason to weaken clean air and water laws, knowing that such proposals would never pass on their own. And she called the bill part of a GOP trend, representing one of many pieces of anti-environmental legislation moving in Hastings' committee and the GOP-led House.
"The number of proposals to roll back key environmental protections is so large that almost anything can happen," Danowitz said. "And this is largely going on without real public awareness. That combination is not a good one."