The Border Patrol would gain unprecedented authority over Minnesota's environmental landmarks on our northern border, including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park, under legislation winding through Congress.
More than 30 environmental laws would be waived and the Department of Homeland Security would be allowed to build roads, erect fences, set up monitoring equipment and use vehicles to patrol public lands within 100 miles of the Mexican and Canadian borders, according to proposed legislation in the House.
Public land managers in the departments of Interior and Agriculture would not be allowed to "impede, prohibit or restrict" the patrol from controlling the border, under the Republican-sponsored legislation. Homeland Security could disregard landmark environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act.
The bill, authored by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and a similar measure by Rep. Ben Quayle, R-Ariz., were written primarily to address human and drug smuggling on the southern border, but both include the northern border, too. A Senate version does not.
The proposals have residents in northern Minnesota bristling, saying the area has few people crossing illegally and the Border Patrol would be wiser to engage more locals in reporting suspicious activity.
"All those illegal walleyes that are coming across? I mean, good God," quipped Ted Young, co-owner of Poplar Creek Guesthouse and Boundary Country Trekking, about 3 miles from the Canadian border on the Gunflint Trail. "We don't want fences, we don't want roads. ... Don't create problems that are not there."
Sue Prom, who with her husband owns Voyageur Canoe Outfitters about 5 miles from the Canadian border, said she's frustrated the northern border has been lumped in with problems to the south: "We don't have people swimming from Canada into the United States," she said.
But the legislation is also about potential terrorists, said Bishop spokeswoman Melissa Subbotin. "We know that there have been efforts by others wishing to do harm to our country to enter through both the north and the southern borders," she said.
Working together locally
If passed, the legislation would mark a significant change in the balance of power among the federal departments, now governed by a five-year-old agreement requiring them to collaborate for minimal environmental impact.
Leaders of federal agencies in the region say they have been working well together under that agreement, both watching the border and protecting the environment.
"We're not aware of any situations where either of us are hampering one another's missions," said Mike Ward, superintendent of Voyageurs National Park.
The departments back each other up on law enforcement missions, sometimes share equipment and often share information, officials said.
"We haven't had this need, specifically, for any legislation," said Border Patrol spokesman Stacy Forbes, based in Grand Forks, N.D.
The current agreement allows Border Patrol agents to patrol areas on foot or horseback without asking, as well as use motorized vehicles in emergency situations, Forbes said his agency typically notifies local wilderness managers, because they know the area best.
"They're the experts," Forbes said. "They would know if there's any type of movement."
Jim Sanders, forest supervisor of the 3.2 million-acre Superior National Forest, which contains the Boundary Waters, said his staff acts as "eyes and ears" for Border Patrol, too.
"It's working well," he said. "Some of their folks were helping us during the Pagami fire."
But in other areas of the country, some former Border Patrol agents complain the agreement in place now -- a memorandum of understanding -- gives an upper hand to park and wilderness land managers. It amounts to the Border Patrol making requests, one former agent said.
"It's a mother-may-I thing, and a request to get in there may take months," said Kent Lundgren, chairman of the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers. "They allow hot pursuit. That's good, but that does not allow patrol, and patrol is how you find things out."
Agents like to be outside, Lundgren said, and naturally act as environmental stewards.
Subbotin, of Bishop's office, said they expect agents will use increased access only for what's essential to their mission. "To argue otherwise would be to challenge their judgment."
The bill's goals are in lockstep with the Pledge to America, a 48-page policy agenda set forth by House Republicans in 2010. That document contains language to "prohibit the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture from interfering with Border Patrol enforcement activities on federal lands."
Jane Danowitz, director of the U.S. public lands program at the Pew Environment Group, said Homeland Security officials didn't ask for the legislation and she thinks that's significant.
"We're talking about legislation that would basically, under the guise of national security, undo environmental laws that have been on the books for decades," Danowitz said. "These are popular protections."
U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack, R-Minn., whose district includes the state's northeast border, said in a statement that international security often conflicts with other priorities such as environmental preservation. He looks forward to examining "a proper balance between international security and Minnesota's pristine wilderness."
No big plans for sector
U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Grand Forks Sector, which covers 861 miles of border in North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin, increased the number of agents from 28 in 1992 to 213 last year.
In fiscal year 2010, those agents apprehended 543 illegal immigrants, 388 of whom originally came from Mexico. In fiscal year 2008, 78 people illegally crossed from Canada into the sector, Forbes said. More recent data wasn't available.
Forbes said the Grand Forks Sector, which stretches south to Kansas and Missouri, has no plans to build roads, fences or other major infrastructure, though an environmental assessment along the entire northern border is being completed to expedite such plans if needed in the future.
Dyke Williams, who for 25 years has owned a cabin on the end of the Gunflint Trail, less than a mile from the border, said it doesn't matter if there are no plans at the moment. "Pass that puppy and you're going to have plans all over the place," he said.
Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102