Imagine you’re three days into that wilderness trip you’ve been dreaming about all winter. Deep solitude. Over the ridge, a low-flying helicopter appears. Its sound hits you first, engine screaming, rotors thumping the air, their whop-whop-whop reverberating off mountain walls. As the chopper draws closer and begins circling, you stare eye-to-eye with a heavily armed, goggled and ear-muffled pilot.
Or, you are winter camping in the quiet solitude of the north woods, when at night a similarly loud helicopter suddenly hovers over your campsite in the snow, shining a spotlight down on you.
Welcome to America’s border-patrolled wilderness in 2013.
Sound far-fetched? It’s not. The first incident happened to a woman last summer in the Pasayten Wilderness along the northern border in central Washington. The second incident occurred a few winters ago in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. And unless Congress and federal land management agencies act soon to rein in the excesses of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), it could become a common experience in many of our nation’s premier wildernesses along our northern border with Canada.
A new analysis by our organization, Wilderness Watch, identifies 73 U.S. wildernesses in 12 states that are threatened by a variety of security measures along the northern border. The threatened areas stretch westward from Maine to Washington, and north along the entire Alaska/Canada border. They include some of America’s most well-known and loved areas, as identified in our 22-page report, “Wilderness in Peril: Border Security Measures Threaten Wilderness Along the Northern Border with Canada.”
“Wilderness in Peril” documents threats from a variety of sources, including legislation passed by the House of Representatives last year that would have waived 16 environmental laws, including the Wilderness Act and Endangered Species Act, within 100 miles of all U.S. borders. That bill fortunately died in the Senate.
But flying under the radar, and potentially having far greater impact, are actions by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its agencies like Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Border Patrol. These agencies completed a 2012 environmental-impact statement calling for the same heavy-handed tactics along the northern border that are now used along the southern. These measures include both ground and aerial motorized patrols, and developing permanent infrastructure like border walls and surveillance towers.
Of even more immediate concern is a memorandum of understanding between DHS and the federal land management agencies that erroneously assumes that wildernesses and national parks along the northern border end 60 feet away from the international boundary, and therefore Border Patrol need not comply with protections on these lands.
If that isn’t enough, under a 2005 law the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security can unilaterally waive any law he or she so chooses, with no prior consultation with Congress or the federal land-management agencies and with no ability for citizens to seek recourse in the courts.
Congress should never have put so much power in the hands of a single, unelected bureaucrat, and Congress must put that power back in the hands of elected officials and the public process where it belongs. Former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff waived dozens of federal laws in 2008, including the 1964 Wilderness Act, to build hundreds of miles of border wall along the southern border. This construction included blasting and building one road right through the Otay Mountain Wilderness.
Wilderness Watch believes that our nation must protect our wildernesses while keeping our country safe. Our report suggests several ways to accomplish this along the northern border. First, Congress must repeal the dictatorial power of the homeland security secretary to unilaterally waive federal laws.
Second, we must correct the flaws in the 2006 agency memorandum of understanding. Next, we must revise DHS’s environmental-impact statement to safeguard wilderness. Fourth, we must continue to defeat legislative efforts like last year’s border bill and, finally, restore wilderness protection to the national priority it deserves and formerly enjoyed.
Kevin Proescholdt is the conservation director and George Nickas is the executive director for Wilderness Watch, a national nonprofit wilderness conservation organization.