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House passes border land control bill

The Republican-controlled House on Tuesday approved 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 said 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.

The bill was approved, 232-188, with Montana's Rep. Denny Rehberg among the supporters.

"This bill, which is absolutely necessary to secure our borders against illegal immigrants, drug dealers, human traffickers and terrorists, is much more carefully crafted than what the Senate passed in 2009," Rehberg said in a press release Tuesday, going on to call out his opponent in this November's senate race, Jon Tester.

""I call on our Senators to stop playing partisan games with national security and support this effort like they have in the past. "

Tester also issued a press release Tuesday, explaining his problems with the bill.

"Congressman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, today offered amendments to the measure. But the amendments do not change the bill's ability to allow top-down decisions about Montana's public lands with no public input, " the Tuesday's release states, continuing with a quote from Blaine County Commissioner Vic Miller.

"Congressman Rehberg can put as much lipstick on this pig as he wants, but it's still sausage, " Miller said in the release, an excerpt from a column he wrote in 2011 about House Resolution 1505 which has been rolled into the bill that passed. "This irresponsible bill still gives the federal government authority to make top-down decisions about our public land without any public input — even if it means building roads across Montana's big game habitat. "

Bishop, the measure's chief sponsor, said restrictions on federal lands 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.

The Obama administration opposes the border control bill, part of a larger package of 14 land-use bills approved Tuesday by the House. The measure faces dim prospects in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., said the House 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 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.

Bishop spokesperson Melissa Subbotin said this morning that among the amendments Bishop put on the bill Tuesday was one to clarify that the bill does nothing to change the relationship the U. S. Border Patrol has with tribal governments.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is part of the Department of Interior specified in the bill.

"It doesn't (affect Indian reservations), " Subbotin said. The way that the Border Patrol interfaced with reservations previously will remain, moving forward. This in no way changes the relationship between the Border Patrol and sovereign nations or Indian reservations. "

Havre Daily News reporters Tim Leeds and Zach White, and The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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