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HR 1505: The Latest Tribal Border War

Today, a broad parks and recreation bill called H.R. 2578 — “To amend the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act related to a segment of the Lower Merced River in California, and for other purposes,” also known as the Conservation and Economic Growth Act — is scheduled for a floor vote in the U.S. House of Representatives. And it will affect Indian country, as included in the bill is H.R. 1505, or the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act.

Authored by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) and featuring 59 cosponsors from across the country, H.R. 1505 would give the Secretary of Homeland Security, through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the authority to take control of “all land under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture within 100 miles of the international land borders of the United States.”

“Securing our nation’s borders must be among our highest priorities," said Rep. Bishop, who also serves as House National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands Subcommittee chairman. "Right now, public lands inaccessible to the United States Border Patrol offer nearly unfettered safe harbor for criminal drug and human smugglers entering our country illegally. The Border Patrol must have improved access in order to deter and apprehend those using our federal lands as trafficking routes.”

The bill was amended in committee last fall to remove language that included maritime borders, add language to protect existing legal uses for recreational and economic activities, add a five-year sunset date to evaluate if the legislation should be renewed, and strictly limit the activities (six) for which the bill could be used. In fact, the committee changed all references to "The Secretary of Homeland Security" to "U.S. Customs and Border Protection" to emphasize that authority would be limited to border security operations and personnel. It would not be a broad new authority across the federal government.

However, according to Oliver “OJ” Semans, executive director of Four Directions, a nonpartisan get-out-the-native-vote organization based on South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation, the problem for Indian country is that the tribes whose lands lie within 100 miles of the Mexican and Canadian borders were never part of the legislative process — and would have no say in how their lands could be used within the scope of those six authorized activities.

“The (author and) sponsors of H.R. 1505 want to give the U.S. Department of Homeland Security unprecedented power to build roads, fences, buildings or even watchtowers on public land administered by the departments of Interior and Agriculture,” Semans said. “This bill directly affects tribes, and they were never even consulted and/or asked to attend hearings on the bills.”

The text of the amended legislation reads, “The Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture shall not impede, prohibit or restrict activities of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection on land under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture to achieve operational control over the international land borders of the United States.” The authorized activities include construction and maintenance of roads and fences; vehicle patrols; installation, maintenance and operation of surveillance equipment and sensors; use of aircraft; and deployment of temporary tactical infrastructure, including forward operating bases.

While the legislation states that it will not restrict legal land uses such as grazing, hunting or mining, it does list more than 30 acts that H.R. 1505 would waive. These include the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, the Act of June 8, 1906 (also known as “the Antiquities Act of 1906”), the National Historic Preservation Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the Wilderness Act. The National Historic Preservation Act and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act protect sites considered sacred to Native people.

Affected tribes include the Bay Mills Indian Community (Michigan), Blackfeet Tribe (Montana), Grand Portage Band of Chippewa (Minnesota), Red Lake Band of Chippewa (Minnesota), Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa Tribe (Michigan), St. Regis Mohawk Tribe (New York), Aroostook Band of Micmac (Maine), Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa (Wisconsin), Boise Forte Band of Chippewa (Minnesota), Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation (Washington), Fort Belknap Indian Community (Montana), Fort Peck Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes (Montana), Houlton Band of Maliseet (Maine), Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe (Washington), Kalispel Tribe (Washington), Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (Michigan), Kootenai Tribe (Idaho), Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe (Washington), Lummi Nation (Washington), Makah Tribe (Washington), Nooksack Tribe (Washington), Passamaquoddy Tribe (Maine), Penobscot Nation (Maine), Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa (Wisconsin), Seneca Nation (New York), Swinomish Tribe (Washington), Tonawanda Seneca Tribe (New York), Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa (North Dakota), Tuscarora Nation (New York) and the Upper Skagit Tribe (Washington).

One of H.R. 1505’s most vocal opponents is Senator Jon Tester (D-MT). His state is home to several affected tribes, and he has expressed deep concern for the lack of consultation with tribes — and lack of public input altogether.

“H.R. 1505 contains specific language that allows one federal department ‘immediate’ and total control over public lands in Montana,” said Aaron Murphy, communications director of Montanans for Tester. “Jon is concerned by this irresponsible proposal because it undermines… tribal sovereignty with a one-size-fits-all big government strategy, allowing a handful of federal agents to do whatever they want with no public input and no public accountability. Those who support this bill failed to consult with tribes — or any Montanans for that matter. Any decisions that deal with public land should be made with public input.

“Jon also is concerned that the legislation waives at least 36 laws,” he added.

Murphy noted that, as written, the Department of Homeland Security — again, through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection — would not have to seek permission to do whatever is necessary to achieve “operational control” on any land administered by the Department of Agriculture or the Department of the Interior.

“There is no language that exempts lands administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” he observed. “The House (committee) even rejected an amendment to specifically exempt tribal land from H.R. 1505.”

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Sen. Tester, he said, “believes we can protect our nation without trampling tribal rights.”

Sen. Tester isn’t the only one to express concern. According to testimony from the House hearing on H.R. 1505, the lead lawyer for the Department of the Interior under President Clinton also expressed serious concerns about the bill’s effects on tribal sovereignty.

A fellow Montana legislator, Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT), is a co-sponsor of the bill and co-chair of the Congressional Northern Border Caucus. He proposed many of the changes that were incorporated into the current, amended version of H.R. 1505, and he said the bill is a good one for Montana and the United States.

“Border security is national security, and in Montana that means safety for our families and communities,” Rep. Rehberg commented. “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.”

He also noted that the legislation is much more targeted than what he called “the sweeping measure” that unanimously passed the U.S. Senate in 2009.

“We built in protections for grazing rights and more narrowly focused the intent of the law on efforts to secure the border,” he explained. “We also added a sunset provision so the law can be reviewed by Congress to make sure it’s working as intended. This was a good bill, and now it’s even better.”

Is there a dangerous “turf war” between federal agencies? The Department of Homeland Security already has a memorandum of understanding with the departments of Interior and Agriculture that allows the departments to work together in a situation that might require DHS to pursue suspects or investigations on public land. And, according to a prominent Washington D.C. lobbyist who represents tribes across the country, there has been “no hue and cry” from the Border Patrol to take additional measures to guarantee access.

Tom Rodgers is president of Alexandria-based Carlyle Consulting, and he is perhaps best known as the whistle-blower in the Jack Abramoff scandal. He also is a member of Montana’s Blackfeet Nation, and he said he questions the need for H.R. 1505 in the first place.

“I’ve seen the GAO report, and I’ve yet to see substantive arguments,” he commented. “I’m not convinced. There’s been silence from the Border Patrol, and I’ve never heard of any tribe denying access to its land. I call this a weapon of mass distraction.”

Rodgers said he also finds it ironic that so many advocates of smaller government are behind this particular bill.

“There are so few resources, and there are so many other needs,” he said. “Without a demonstrable need, why give the Department of Homeland Security more authority? Why are we spending time and resources on this? It doesn’t make sense.”

Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) is leading opposition to H.R. 1505 on the House Floor today. Members of affected tribes are encouraged to contact their representatives to share their views.

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New Land Bill Will Affect Tribes