WASHINGTON -- The Republican-controlled House moved toward approval Tuesday of a bill that would allow the Border Patrol to circumvent more than a dozen environmental laws on all federally managed lands within 100 miles of the borders with Mexico and Canada.
Supporters say the measure is needed to give border agents unfettered access to rugged lands now controlled by the Interior Department and Forest Service. Laws such as the Wilderness Act and Endangered Species Act often prevent agents from driving vehicles on huge swaths of land, leaving it to wildlife, illegal immigrants and smugglers who can walk through the territory undisturbed, they said.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said the restrictions have turned wilderness areas into highways for criminals, who not only bring in drugs but also abuse and rape women and leave behind thousands of tons of trash.
"Drug traffickers couldn't care less about environmental sensitivities," he said. "The removal of these criminals from our public lands is a value to the environment as well as the mission of the land managers."
But opponents, including hunters, conservationists and Hispanic advocacy groups, call the bill a heavy-handed fix that guts important environmental protections. They also question whether the measure is needed along the vast Canadian border, where there is scant evidence that illegal immigrants are hiking through national parks or wilderness areas in an attempt to slip into the U.S.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., said the bill would sacrifice crucial environmental protections to advance an anti-immigrant and anti-regulatory agenda. Citizens of border communities who have been subjected to what he called an ever-increasing federal law enforcement presence "know what it is like to live in a 'police state' where undertrained security forces with unfettered authority and a lack of oversight are ever-present," Grijalva said.
The Obama administration opposes the bill, which is part of a larger package of 14 land-use bills being considered on the House floor.
The bill in its current form would "thwart successful efforts by agencies to collaborate on border security" and presents "a false choice between natural resources protection and the economy or national security," the White House said in a statement.
Besides the border measure, the bill also would transfer control of more than 65,000 acres of centuries-old trees in Alaska's Tongass National Forest to a private corporation. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, allows the Sealaska Corp. to log large, old-growth trees in the Tongass, the nation's largest national forest.
Sealaska is one of 13 Native regional corporations established under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which compensated Alaska Natives for the loss of lands they historically used or occupied.
Sealaska says the land includes sites with cultural and sacred value. But critics call the proposal a land grab worth billions of dollars in timber sales. A letter by 300 scientists said old-growth logging in the Tongass could jeopardize ecosystems in one of the world's last remaining temperate rainforests and release greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.
Another provision in the bill would make it easier for states and Indian tribes to kill California sea lions that eat endangered salmon on the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. A federal judge has rejected a request by the Humane Society of the United States for an injunction to stop the killing of sea lions near Bonneville Dam, but a lawsuit is proceeding.