WASHINGTON — Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, introduced a bill Wednesday seeking to end the Interior Department's current practice of denying the U.S. Border Patrol access to wilderness and other protected federal lands along the Mexico-U.S. border.
He said that would ensure that Interior's policies "no longer enable dangerous criminals to co-opt federal border lands as their drug trafficking highways."
Bishop for months has been calling for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to change the policy on his own. Bishop, the ranking Republican on a subcommittee that oversees national parks and public lands, visited the border earlier this year and said he saw many problems caused by current policy.
"After seeing firsthand so many signs of illegal activity on our border, including trails cut into federal border lands and the environmental degradation caused by trafficking trains, I requested that Secretary Salazar take immediate action," he said.
But Bishop complained, "Salazar has repeatedly ignored requests for his attention on the matter and seems to have blown off concerns regarding national security and safety issues." So Bishop introduced a bill through which Congress could force the changes he seeks.
Bishop's move comes a few weeks after the murder of Arizona rancher Rob Krentz, who had earlier written to members of Congress expressing worry about his family's safety because of criminal activity that was taking place in wilderness areas along the border.
"We are in fear for our lives and safety and health of ourselves and that of our family and friends," Krentz and his wife wrote to Congress in 2007. On March 28, he was shot and killed on his ranch by a person who had illegally entered and exited the country through the San Bernardino Wildlife Refuge.
"The gravity of this situation must no longer be ignored," Bishop said. He added that giving the Border Patrol access "will not only remedy weaknesses in border security, but also improve the health and vitality of our protected lands, which have been severely damaged by years of abuse from drug and human traffickers."
Kendra Barkoff, Salazar's press secretary, said progress is being made on the border, and Salazar went there last month to tour the area and hold meetings with numerous federal agencies about challenges there.
"Collaborative work between DOI staff and DHS (Department of Homeland Security) has allowed for border security infrastructure to be strategically located, including on federal lands, to meet DHS security requirement and goals," she said.
"Secretary Salazar believes that we can meet the twin goals of protecting our national security and our natural resources. There is much work to be done, however. He has directed his senior staff to continue work together with DHS and all other agencies to improve communication, collaboration, border security, and resource protection. This is a high priority," she said.
This story was reported from Salt Lake City.