A new government investigation has uncovered a deadly bureaucratic turf war between Border Patrol and federal land managers that has been delaying and even denying critical access to the border along federal lands. In one case, Border Patrol had to pay millions of dollars for access to federal lands managed by the National Park Service. That’s right. Border Patrol had to expend taxpayer dollars to compensate a federal agency in order to get access to federal land. That’s not only bad fiscal policy — it’s downright dangerous for our national security.
Nearly half of Montana’s border with Canada is on federal land. Another government investigation revealed that only 1 percent of the northern border is secure, and that a contributing factor is the inability of border agents to get permission to patrol on federal lands.
As an avid sportsman and a retired Border Patrol agent, who just returned from an elk hunt, I treasure Montana’s public lands. Agencies such as BLM, Forest Service and National Park Service, serve a valuable purpose as stewards of public lands. They also help to enforce useful federal laws like the Endangered Species Act and the Wilderness Act. And I don’t know a single Border Patrol agent who would do anything to jeopardize our public lands.
I’ve also seen the results of an unprotected border first-hand. I’ve witnessed the sort of human trafficking, and the illegal drug trafficking that rips families apart and destroys entire communities. The national security threat of terrorism is very real. Even forests and wildlife suffer from an unprotected border, as drug smugglers and illegal border crossers aren’t known to respect the environment.
Montanans value our environment and wildlife. But do we prioritize them over human life and national security? Of course not. Yet, current law does just that. By making border security beg federal land managers for access that can be delayed or denied, our federal government is prioritizing trees and turfs wars over the safety of the American people.
Congressman Denny Rehberg has sponsored a common-sense bill that corrects this problem. House Resolution 1505, the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act, is really quite simple. It gives the Border Patrol the access it needs to do its job on federal lands — the same access, by the way, that it already has on state and private lands.
This is a good bill which is why it’s been endorsed by the National Border Patrol Council which represents 17,000 Border Patrol agents, the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers and Borderland Ranchers. It’s a bill that Montanans support.
But Sen. Jon Tester seems to be listening to environmental interest groups from places like San Francisco. These special interest groups don’t seem to think that border security is much of a priority.
Sen. Tester has misrepresented what this bill does in order to falsely criticize his opponent. Although the bill creates no new enforcement authority at all, he’s equated it to the PATRIOT Act and Real ID. His words aren’t supported by reality. And while H.R. 1505 simply provides Border Patrol with priority access to protect the border on federal lands, Sen. Tester calls it a federal land grab. Senator, how can the federal government grab land from itself? The answer, of course, is it can’t.
What makes Sen. Tester’s position on this issue so questionable is that he knows better. Remember that government report that warned only one percent of the northern border was secure? In the same report, the Government Accountability Office also warned that, “cross-border illegal activity remains a significant threat on southwest and northern federal borderlands.”
Guess who requested that report from the GAO? Yep, Sen. Tester, who, when the report came out, said this: “An investigation that I asked for revealed that Customs and Border Protection has control over just one percent of the northern border. That’s not acceptable. We need to use every effective and affordable tool to do better. Folks on the ground in Montana understand the need to bolster border security, to keep our communities safe from illegal drugs, illegal immigration and terrorism.”
Maybe most shocking is this: Before he was up for re-election, Sen. Tester actually voted for a measure that did exactly what H.R. 1505 does. In 2009, with Sen. Tester’s support, the Senate unanimously passed a measure to prevent the Department of Interior from doing anything to “impede, prohibit, or restrict activities of the Secretary of Homeland Security on public lands to achieve operational control” of the border (Senate Amendment 2523, Sept. 24, 2009).
Rep. Rehberg deserves our thanks for his support of the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act. As a third generation Montanan, a retired deputy chief with the U. S. Border Patrol, and an enthusiastic sportsman, I call on Sen. Tester to stop playing partisan games with national security and the safety of his constituents. Giving Border Patrol access to the border was good enough for his support in 2009, it should be good enough today.
(Ted Denning is a retired deputy chief from the Havre sector of the U.S. Border Patrol.)