Proposed Bill Puts National Security Ahead of Environmental Protection

Sep 8, 2011

10 years after the tragic events of September 11, securing our borders is still a pressing issue for politicians on both sides of the aisle. But for some in Congress, national security and environmental protection can’t coexist.

A new bill introduced by Representative Rob Bishop of Utah would allow unhindered development within 100 miles of an international border or the U.S. coastline, as long as it can be justified as necessary for national security.

(Ashley Ahearn reports.)

(Waterfall fades up)

Tom Uniack clambers up a rocky trail along Van Trump Creek in Mt. Rainier National Park. He’s the conservation director of the Washington Wilderness Coalition.

Tom Uniack: “We’re looking at a number of cascades that are rushing down a rock canyon and we’re sitting over a wood trail bridge.”

Mt. Rainier National Park seems utterly untouched by the changes that have rippled across the country in the years since 9-11. But a bill now pending in Congress could change that.

HR1505, as the bill is called, would allow the Department of Homeland Security to build roads, transmission lines, and security installations on any federally owned land within 100 miles of the U-S coast or border. Tom Uniak says that includes national Forests, wilderness areas and National Parks like this one.

Tom Uniack: “The bill is written in a way that all these things, potentially, if seen as part of the national interest or national security, could apply and laws could be exempted.”

Altogether, the bill would allow DHS to override 36 environmental and other laws on these federal lands in the interest of border security… including such bedrock laws as the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.

The idea gives some environmentalists night sweats.

But supporters say it just makes sense.

Rob Bishop: “Wilderness designation in no way should trump border security.”

That’s Representative Rob Bishop, the Utah Republican who introduced HR1505. Bishop says current law allows federal land managers to “bully” the U-S border patrol on public lands.

Rob Bishop: “They can do what they need to do on private property, it’s only on public property that they’re restricted and that is ridiculous. That’s simply asinine.”

The bill would allow DHS to basically do whatever it thinks it needs to do in order to achieve “operational control” of public lands within 100 miles of the U-S border. That means keeping out terrorists… and illegal immigrants. In particular, Congressman Bishop says it’s necessary to secure parts of the US border in Arizona, where he says large numbers of illegal immigrants from Mexico enter the country.

Rob Bishop: “To my belief it’s because 80% of AZ border with Mexico is federal property, over half of that is wilderness designation, Endangered Species habitat, conservation habitat where the border patrol is limited to the kind of access they have and what they can do.”

But opponents of HR1505 say the bill would give unprecedented authority to a single federal agency to ignore environmental laws. And Jane Danowitz, of the Pew Environmental Trust in Washington, D.C., says there’s a lot more at stake than just the Arizona desert or Mt. Rainier. A huge amount of public land would fall under the bill’s scope.

Jane Danowitz: “Were talking about some of the nation’s most popular national parks and beaches. Glacier National Park, the Florida everglades, beaches along Cape Cod, the great lakes and the California coastline.”

Danowitz says the bill is overkill.

Jane Danowitz: “After 9/11 national security for all the right reasons jumped to the top of America’s priorities but the sweeping waiver of our bedrock environmental laws has little to do with accomplishing that goal.”

What it does have to do with, Danowitz asserts, is a rising anti-environmental movement in Congress.

Jane Danowitz: “There’s going to be a lot of things happening this fall in Congress that are under the radar. There are more than 70 provisions that // would undo longstanding protections for clean air, clean water, wilderness, ES and even allow uranium mining around the Grand Canyon.”

Regardless of the intentions of its sponsors, it’s not just environmentalists who oppose this bill. The very agency that supporters say will benefit the most from HR1505 – Customs and Border Protection – doesn’t want the power it would be given.

I asked Congressman Bishop about that.

Ashley Ahearn (on tape): “In a testimony in July the Customs and Border Patrol said they oppose 1505.”

(Long Pause)

Rob Bishop: “Yes People in WA…. Yes they did.”

Ashley Ahearn (on tape): “So, well, aren’t they the folks that would be pretty happy about this?”

Rob Bishop: “I will tell you right now privately, when I talk to people who are current Border Patrol personnel as well as those who are retired border patrol, they have a different story than this current administration has.”

Along with representative Bishop, HR1505 has 48 co-sponsors in the House, all republicans. The bill,,, which is officially titled the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act… will begin working its way through the House early this fall.

(I’m Ashley Ahearn in Seattle.)

Copyright KUOW News 2011