Lame-Duck Lands Bill Threatens Border Security

by Dana Joel Gattuso

With his time running out, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is expected to try to force a massive omnibus lands bill through Congress. If passed, the mega-package would buy up and tie up millions of acres of land in over 13 states — and worse, increase the national-security risk at the Mexican border.

The omnibus bill, which includes over 100 federal land-acquisition bills, is on a fast track this lame-duck session and is expected to come up for a vote next week. Individually, these bills failed to make it beyond committee, but the Democratic leadership is hopeful they can pass it by ramming it through the lame duck as an omnibus bundle.

Many of the bills failed to pass because they are considered controversial. For example, legislation sponsored by Senator Bingaman (D., N.M.) would designate over 100,000 acres of land at or near the New Mexico–Mexico border as federal wilderness area, increasing the threat of drug smuggling into the U.S. from Mexico.

The package is being considered for a vote at a time when the Government Accountability Office is warning that Border Patrol is losing the fight over illegal entry and drug smuggling in border areas where lands are owned and managed by the federal government. According to the just-released GAO report, “Border Patrol apprehensions have not kept pace with the estimated number of illegal entries, indicating that threats to these areas may be increasing.”

This follows a similar report by the GAO last October that found environmental-protection laws on federal lands are limiting border-patrol officials’ ability to detect and stop illegal aliens:

“Specifically, patrol agents-in-charge for 14 of the 17 stations reported that they have been unable to obtain a permit or permission to access certain areas in a timely manner because of how long it takes for land managers to conduct required environmental and historic property assessments.”

Wilderness designations are a particular problem. They are the most restrictive form of federal land protection, not only keeping the public out but in many cases denying access to federal border-patrol officials as well.

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano described her concerns in a letter to Rep. Rob Bishop (R., Utah) last fall: “Federal land managers understand the duties of the [Border Patrol] with regard to operations on lands under their care, yet there remains a much higher level of difficulty associated with operations within wilderness and on other special land types. … While [Border Patrol] recognizes the importance and value of wilderness area designations, they can have a significant impact on [patrol] operations in border regions. This includes that these types of restrictions can impact the efficacy of operations and be a hindrance to the maintenance of officer safety. The USBP … makes every reasonable effort to use the least impacting means of transportation within wilderness; however along the southwest border it can be detrimental to the most effective accomplishment of the mission.

“For example, it may be inadvisable for officer safety to wait for the arrival of horses for pursuit purposes, or to attempt to apprehend smuggling vehicles within wilderness with a less capable form of transportation.”

Representatives of the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers have also weighed in, warning that as federal wilderness areas are designated, “the criminal element moves in because the restrictive wilderness or refuge status … effectively prevents all law enforcement from effectively working the area.”

Rep. Doc Hastings (R., Wa.) and some of his fellow Republicans have made a reasonable request: They would like Congress to wait until the new legislative session and then consider bills individually, on their own merits, rather than shoving them through in a huge package when an unknowing public is unable to either grasp or scrutinize the content and ramifications of these bills.

Some Democrats would also prefer to wait, given the gravity of the issue. Not surprisingly, Rep. Harry Teague, an outgoing Democrat from New Mexico, is among the most concerned. Says his spokeswoman, “with a unique, exceptionally dangerous drug war that has claimed thousands of lives raging just across the border in Mexico, Harry is cautious to endorse legislation until we know more about how the drug war could impact our national security, and it can be conclusively established that the bill will not hinder Border Patrol and local law enforcement efforts to restrict criminal activity, protect against the drug violence in the border region, and secure our border.”

With our national security at stake, let’s hope Senator Reid does the right thing and suspends the omnibus lands package.

Dana Joel Gattuso is director of the Center for Environmental and Regulatory Affairs at the National Center for Public Policy Research.