Friday, May 20, 2011

Congressional Nightmares Fuel a New Assault on our Borderlands

By Scott Nicol

In his recent speech in El Paso President Obama pointed to the buildup of border security personnel and infrastructure, and declining crime rates in border communities, to justify a renewed effort to enact immigration reform. This will be a tough sell in the current Congress.

Just three weeks earlier the difficulty of his task was on display in Washington DC when Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) displayed photos of headless corpses while shouting at Ron Vitiello, Deputy Chief of the US Border Patrol, during a committee hearing. Vitiello had enraged Representative Chaffetz by calmly asserting that, “While there is still work to be done, every key measure shows we are making significant progress along the Southwest border.”

The horrific pictures were not taken within U.S. borders, and so were outside of the Border Patrol’s jurisdiction, despite Chaffetz’ cries that “This is the kind of thing that we’re sending our agents to deal with on a daily basis!”

Chaffetz’ anger boiled over because Deputy Chief Vitiello was not following the Congressman’s script. The facts, that border communities are safe and apprehensions are down, were not welcome.

The Congressional hearing was intended to paint a picture of the U.S. southern border as a war zone, awash in blood and the mutilated bodies of innocents. In this telling, the Border Patrol fights valiantly to achieve “operational control” and quell the violence, but it is hamstrung by environmental laws and federal land managers who care more about endangered species than human life.

It was meant to promote HR 1505, the misnamed “National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act.” Starting with the premise that the Border Patrol has been prevented from entering federal wildlife refuges, wilderness areas, and national monuments along the southern border, it gives the Border Patrol carte blanche on federal lands.

Like the photos of headless bodies, this provision is based on a false impression of our southern border. The Border Patrol and federal land management agencies signed a cooperative agreement in 2006 allowing access to protected lands that Vitiello said works well. Rugged terrain and remote locations are the real problems reported by agents in the field, not restrictions imposed by land managers.

The bill goes on to exempt the Border Patrol from obeying dozens of environmental laws.

Its precursor, the Real ID Act, was used in 2008 to waive 36 laws along the southern border to erect border walls. The Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and National Environmental Policy Act were among those brushed aside to allow for construction that otherwise would have violated them. This resulted in severe environmental damage.

HR 1505 extends the 2008 waivers to cover all of the U.S. – Mexico border, the Canadian border, all maritime borders, and every square inch of terrain within 100 miles of them.

The waiver covers some of our nation’s most important protected areas, from Glacier National Park and the Boundary Waters to Redwood National Park and the Cape Cod National Seashore. Two-thirds of the population of the United States would also fall under the waiver.

Instead of thanking the Congressmen for freeing the Border Patrol from these legal burdens, Deputy Chief Vitiello undermined HR 1505’s premise. He confirmed the Government Accountability Office finding that “Most agents reported that land management laws have had no effect on Border Patrol’s overall measure of border security.”

The photos of headless bodies were displayed in an effort to discredit the Border Patrol’s testimony, and to burn a brutal image into viewers’ minds that would overwhelm the facts that Vitiello presented.

The angry tirades aimed at the Border Patrol made it clear that the “National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act” really has nothing to do with national security. It does not help the Border Patrol, and they did not ask for it. It is nothing more than an assault on our nation’s public lands and environmental laws.

Speaking within sight of the border, President Obama said that “despite a lot of breathless reports that have tagged places like El Paso as dangerous… El Paso and other cities and towns along this border are consistently among the safest in the nation.”

America cannot develop rational policies that protect border residents and ecosystems by picking and choosing facts any more than we can support the rule of law by cherry picking which laws to obey and waiving the rest. With members of congress choosing fear over facts, ungrounded nightmares instead of FBI statistics, the reform that the president spoke of remains a distant dream.

Here is part one of the April 15 hearing on HR 1505

Here is part two. Rep. Chaffetz brandishes the photos of corpses around a half-hour into this clip.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Congressional Proposals Aim to Eviscerate Environmental Laws Along U.S. Borders, Coasts

Press Release from:

Randy Serraglio, Center for Biological Diversity
Scott Nicol, Sierra Club Borderlands Team
Jenny Neeley, Sky Island Alliance
Matt Clark, Defenders of Wildlife
Mike Quigley, The Wilderness Society
Nathan Newcomer, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance
Matt Skroch, Arizona Wilderness Coalition

Under Guise of Border Security, Bills Would Eliminate Measures
Protecting Air, Water, Endangered Species

TUCSON, Ariz.— Two bills pending in Congress would eliminate environmental laws along U.S. borderlands — including those that protect endangered species and safeguard clean air and water — under the guise of improving border security. The “National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act” (H.R. 1505), introduced by Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, would permanently exempt border-enforcement activities from 31 environmental and cultural resource laws within 100 miles of all U.S. borders and coasts.

The “Border Security Enforcement Act of 2011” (S. 803), introduced by Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl, would effectively give the Department of Homeland Security veto power over environmental protections on public lands within 150 miles of the southwestern border. Land managers in the border region would be prevented from acting to protect the resources they manage if their actions were perceived to conflict with Department of Homeland Security activities.

“These bedrock environmental laws were put in place for a reason: to protect the air we breathe, the water we drink and the natural resources and wildlife we value,” said Randy Serraglio, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “It makes no sense to turn our back on these laws to satisfy the narrow agenda of a few politicians looking to score points with their most extreme constituents.”

The authority included in these bills has not been requested. In fact, it has been deemed unnecessary by border-enforcement agencies. During an April 15 congressional hearing on border security, U.S. Border Patrol Deputy Chief Ronald Vitiello testified that his agency “enjoys a close working relationship” with public lands agencies that “allows it to fulfill its border enforcement responsibilities.” Vitiello said his agency “is fully committed to continuing our cooperative relationships with the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture.”

“These bills have been introduced solely to satisfy the radical whims of a small minority of anti-environment extremists in Congress,” said Jenny Neeley, conservation policy director for Sky Island Alliance. “These proposals threaten the entire Sky Islands region we work to protect by establishing a dangerous legal precedent of permanently erasing environmental and cultural resource protections across huge swaths of the United States.”

Barrier and road construction, off-road driving, stadium lighting and other border-enforcement activities already threaten parks, refuges and other protected areas as well as many species in the border region, including endangered jaguars and ocelots in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

“Too much damage has been done to our borderlands already,” said Scott Nicol, Sierra Club Borderlands Team co-chair. “From massive blasting and erosion in California wilderness areas to devastating floods in Arizona and fragmented habitat for endangered species in Texas, the implementation of border enforcement with callous disregard for our nation’s environmental laws has caused one disaster after another.”

“Protections for endangered wildlife, water and clean air are not standing in the way of border security,” said Matt Clark with Defenders of Wildlife in Tucson. “All Congress has to do is look at the facts: Apprehensions of immigrants illegally crossing the border have fallen by two-thirds over the past decade. Border Patrol and land-management agencies have been effectively working together, and it’s clear that it takes teamwork to secure the border and protect the environment.”

“These efforts to discard the rule of law rest on the false premise that we can have border security or we can have functioning borderlands ecosystems, but not both. That's wrong. We can — and we should — have both,” said Mike Quigley, Arizona representative of The Wilderness Society.

“Protected areas such as wilderness and national parks along our borders provide us with essential environmental services, premier recreation opportunities and important habitat for our wildlife heritage,” said Matt Skroch, executive director of the Arizona Wilderness Coalition. “These shortsighted efforts to waive laws are penny wise and pound foolish. Border enforcement and natural resource management are not and should not be mutually exclusive.”