Thursday, June 9, 2011

Border Skirmish: Republicans Are Using Immigrants to Bash Our Wilderness

by Char Miller

It would be nice if Congress held executive-branch agencies accountable for their actions. Or insisted that they follow federal law. Or fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities to one another.

But the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is making a mockery of these basic rules of order and good government.

You won't be surprised that the latest bit of GOP chicanery involves its twin obsessions: the U.S-Mexico Border and national environmental regulations. Their hyperventilating defense of the former, as I've noted before, comes with blustery assaults on the latter.

Since November, Utah representative Rob Bishop, chair of the House subcommittee on public lands, along with his gal pal, Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), and a host of fellow travelers, have mounted an incessant campaign to allow the U. S. Border Patrol to ignore key provisions of the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other vital environmental laws.

Arguing that such legislation impedes the Border Patrol's capacity to defend the nation against undocumented migrants, they have filed amendments and riders to pending legislation, called public hearings to lambaste officials of the Department of Interior, and penned fulminating op-eds to rouse the party's extremist base.

Their most recent gambit came late last week in the form of an amendment to the Department of Homeland Security's appropriation. Rep. Lummis proposed, and a lock-step Republican vote secured, a rule prohibiting DHS from transferring funds to the Department of the Interior.

These moneys would have been used to mitigate the oft-intense environmental damage resulting from the construction of the infamous border wall across federal wildlife refuges, wildlands, and preserves, in such places as the Rio Grande Valley; Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument; and the Otay Wilderness near San Diego. And from the spinning wheels of its high-speed patrols that can tear up wildlife habitat or damage sensitive ecosystems.

Such mitigation, required by law, is also sanctioned through longstanding practice among localities, states, and the federal government. It is also a matter of committed environmental stewardship.

Neither the precedent nor the principle matters to contemporary Republicans. In a "Dear Colleague" letter that Bishop, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA), chair of the Natural Resources Committee, and Rep. Peter King (R-NY), chair of the Committee on Homeland Security sent out in support of Lummis' amendment, they thrilled at its anti-environmentalism: "the amendment would strike language in the bill that allows these funds to be used by the Interior Department to purchase even more land. Additional federal land acquisition only exacerbates the problem by limiting access to even more land and further bloating the federal estate--at a time when the government cannot even afford to provide the basic care and maintenance needed for existing national parks and other lands."

(Query: why can't the government afford to take care of its treasured public lands? Answer: drastic Republican budget cuts!)

Lummis heaps just as much scorn on the legal obligations and moral responsibilities the government has for protecting our public lands: "Every day our nation's border patrol fights to protect our country against increasingly sophisticated criminal networks that produce and smuggle illegal drugs, and people, into America," she fumed. "Unfortunately, DOI policies have tied the hands of Border Patrol agents, who need access to federal lands to carry out their constitutional responsibility to secure the border."

Her allegation is bogus. The very same Government Accountability Office report that Lummis and Bishop routinely cite as evidence that environmental regulations have handcuffed the Border Patrol, in fact reached the opposite conclusion. In mid-April, for instance, the GAO found that "22 of the 26 patrol agents-in-charge reported that the overall security status of their jurisdiction had not been affected by land management laws. Instead, factors such as the remoteness and ruggedness of the terrain have had the greatest effect on their ability to achieve operational control in these areas."

The report also revealed that the four patrol agents-in-charge who had "reported that delays and restrictions had affected their ability to achieve or maintain operational control," admitted they "either had not requested resources for increased or timelier access or their requests had been denied by senior Border Patrol officials because of higher priority needs of the agency."

Moreover, the GAO investigation demonstrated that relevant agencies out in the field and inside the Beltway have developed close working relations. To argue otherwise, as Lummis and Bishop reflexively do, is to perpetuate a fraud.

Ah, but why let the facts get in your way when you can wrap yourself in the flag as protective cover? Trumpets Lummis: "our nation's security should be our top priority." Wilderness be damned.

Such a blinkered public policy, in point of fact, will lead us into damnation. That's the potent message embedded in Aldo Leopold's private correspondence and his brilliant conservation classic, Sand County Almanac (1948).

Arguing that wilderness is an irreplaceable part of our "cultural inheritance," and that even then was in precious, dwindling supply--it is a "resource that can shrink but cannot grow"--Leopold urged his fellow citizens to defend these beleaguered lands against those with a narrowly conceived notion of homeland security "If we lose our wilderness, we have nothing left...worth fighting for."

Note, please, that Leopold was a Republican.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West."

Reprinted with the author's permission, this essay was originally posted at KCET: