Monday, September 26, 2011

Border Bill Would Expand Homeland Security Powers

Border bill would expand Homeland Security powers

By John S. Adams

That question is driving a heated debate over a controversial bill to give the Department of Homeland Security sweeping authority over federal lands within 100 miles of the U. S. border.

The proposed National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act would let the agency waive 36 federal environmental protection laws in the name of better border patrols on public lands.

Supporters say it would help U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents secure the nation's borders. Opponents say it would give Homeland Security unchecked authority to disregard major environmental laws covering wilderness areas, national parks and wildlife refuges.

Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg, one of 49 Republican co-sponsors of the measure, said: "The simple idea of the bill is to provide the border patrol with the same access on federal land that it currently has on state and private land. There is nothing about this bill that creates any new authority to intrude into the lives of Americans."

Critics, including Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., say the bill would grant the federal government overreaching powers. "It's a federal land grab at its worst," Tester said. "I just can't see how any lawmaker would think it's a good idea to allow the Department of Homeland Security to make sweeping decisions about our land and ignore our rights without any public accountability."

The bill would give the secretary of Homeland Security authority over federal lands within 100 miles of the U.S. international and maritime borders for "activities that assist in securing the border (including access to maintain and construct roads, construct a fence, use vehicles to patrol and set up monitoring equipment)."

The measure also waives the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Park Service Organic Act, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the National Historic Preservation Act and the Clean Air Act.

Homeland Security spokesman Matt Chandler said the agency does not comment on the specifics of pending legislation.

Kim Thorsen, deputy assistant secretary for law enforcement, security and emergency management at the U.S. Department of Interior, testified to the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands that the Obama administration opposes the measure.

"We… believe that these two objectives — securing our borders and conserving our federal lands — are not mutually exclusive," Thorsen said in written testimony. "We can — and should — do both."

Thorsen said the bill could cause "unintended damage to sensitive natural and cultural resources, including endangered species and wilderness."

Zack Taylor, vice chairman of the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers, said the core principles of border security are national security and public safety. He said no other laws — including environmental protection — should supersede those principles.

"What has happened is the importance on the environment has come to rule everything else," Taylor said in an interview . "In our view, the people are more important than the porcupine or the wolverine or the wolf or the grizzly bear."

Contributing: Adams also reports for the Great Falls (Mont.) Tribune

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