I’ve spent much of my life roaming the wild backcountry of northern Montana on hunting, fishing and backpacking trips. Although I’ve had a few humbling encounters with grizzlies, lightning and avalanches, for the most part I’ve always felt reasonably safe and secure. I never ran into any suicide bombers or terrorists and never dreamed I would -- until now.
According to Montana Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg’s office, I am just plain lucky that al-Qaida operatives – sneaking into this country from Canada -- never attacked me. But Rehberg has a plan to keep us safe, though it requires sacrificing 36 federal laws overwhelmingly backed by Americans.
His proposed law would trample on our basic rights on our public lands, eliminate public involvement in public-land decisions, and diminish the health of public lands and wildlife. It also calls for the expansion of federal government, federal spending and federal control – all things the congressman fervently claims to oppose.
“Border security is national security, and in Montana that means safety for our families and communities,” Rehberg says. He claims his plan is “absolutely necessary to secure our borders against illegal immigrants, drug dealers, human traffickers and terrorists.”
Rehberg is one of 59 Republican co-sponsors of the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act, known as the “Border Bill,” which recently passed the House by a 232-188 vote largely along party lines, with Republicans backing it and Democrats opposing it. Although the bill has little chance of passing the Senate, and President Obama says he would veto it, it illustrates the ongoing disdain much of Congress has for the environmental protections and public lands most Americans cherish. It is, to put it bluntly, an outrageous bill.
The legislation would give U.S. border officials unprecedented access to all federal lands within 100 miles of our border with Canada. In Montana alone, that amounts to more than 32,000 square miles – nearly a third of the state. It would allow the agency to construct roads and fences; use vehicles to patrol federal lands; install, maintain and operate surveillance equipment and sensors; use aircrafts and deploy temporary tactical infrastructure, including forward operating bases – all in some of the most wild and relatively pristine places left in the United States, including Glacier National Park; the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat and Great Bear Wilderness areas; and the Rocky Mountain Front.
The bill would also allow Customs and Border Protection to trump laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act, Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Act.
Rehberg says the bill will give Border Patrol agents the access they need: “It’s time to put an end to the dangerous turf war, where federal land managers hide behind environmental laws in order to prevent border patrol agents from doing their jobs on federal land. It's not acceptable for Montana families to be at risk because federal bureaucrats can't get along.”
Interestingly, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency doesn’t agree. It already has a memorandum of understanding with the departments of Interior and Agriculture that allows them to work together, and last July, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials even testified against the bill, saying that the agency “enjoys a close working relationship with the Department of Interior and Department of Agriculture that allows us to fulfill our border enforcement responsibilities while respecting and enhancing the environment.” In the plain-spoken words of one official: “The bill isn’t needed.”
Then why is Montana’s Rehberg so adamant about it? The answer likely lies in his reassurance that the bill also will not prohibit activities such as gas and oil development, logging, mining and cattle grazing. That would, after all, be consistent with his long-held efforts to remove federal protections for our last remaining wild places.
But as Rehberg well knows, it’s easier to sell fear than truth. Or, as H.L. Mencken put it: "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed -- and hence clamorous to be led to safety -- by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."
In the 1995 satire “Canadian Bacon,” Alan Alda plays a U.S. president who fabricates a threat from Canada to boost his political standing. A patriotic American sheriff named Bud Boomer (played by John Candy) takes the threat seriously and hastily organizes drastic measures to protect our country.
Says Boomer: “There's a time to think, and a time to act. And this, gentlemen, is no time to think.” Apparently, Rehberg saw the film as a documentary rather than a comedy, and took Boomer’s advice too seriously.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.