WASHINGTON - The Republican-controlled House approved a bill Tuesday 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 - including newly sworn-in Rep. Ron Barber, a Tucson Democrat - 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.
The measure's chief sponsor, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, 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 package of 14 land-use bills approved Tuesday by the House.
The measure faces dim prospects in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Rep. Raúl 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.
However, Barber - Grijalva's Democratic colleague from Southern Arizona - crossed party lines to support the House bill on his first day in office, after being elected last week.
"Border security is the No. 1 priority for the people who live and work along our nation's southern border," Barber said Tuesday in a news release. "There is no doubt that this bill will make our borders more secure. But this legislation is far from perfect and I will work to make changes as it moves through the process."
In a statement, the White House 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."
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 set up under a 1971 act that compensated Alaska Natives for the loss of lands they historically used or occupied.
Critics call the proposal a land grab worth billions of dollars in timber sales.
S. Arizona votes
On passage of H.R. 2578, which, among other things, would allow the Border Patrol to circumvent environmental laws on federal land within 100 miles of the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico:
• Ron Barber, D - yes
• Raúl Grijalva, D - no
"Border security is the No. 1 priority for the people who live and work along our nation's southern border. There is no doubt that this bill will make our borders more secure. But this legislation is far from perfect and I will work to make changes as it moves through the process."
Rep. Ron Barber,
newly elected Congressman from Tucson
The Arizona Daily Star contributed to this report.