NOGALES, Ariz. — When Dan Bell drives through his 35,000-acre cattle ranch, he speaks of the hurdles that the Border Patrol faces in his rolling green hills of oak and mesquite trees — the hours it takes to drive to some places, the wilderness areas that are generally off-limits to motorized vehicles, the environmental reviews required to extend a dirt road.
John Ladd offers a different take from his 14,000-acre spread: the Border Patrol already has more than enough roads and its beefed-up presence has flooded his land and eroded the soil.
Their differences explain why ranchers are on opposite sides of the fence over a sweeping proposal to waive environmental reviews on federal lands within 100 miles of Mexico and Canada for the sake of border security. The Border Patrol would have a free hand to build roads, camera towers, helicopter pads and living quarters without any of the outside scrutiny that can modify or even derail plans to extend its footprint.
The U.S. House approved the bill authored by Utah Republican Rob Bishop in June, but prospects in the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate are extremely slim and chances of President Barack Obama's signature even slimmer. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano testified in Congress this year that the bill was unnecessary and "bad policy."
Still, an idea that House Republicans kicked around for years has advanced farther in the legislative process than ever before and rekindled discussion over how to balance border security with wildlife protection.
The debate raises some of the same questions that will play out on a larger scale when Congress and the president tackle immigration reform: Is the U.S. border with Mexico secure, considered by some lawmakers to be a litmus test for granting legal residency and citizenship to millions? Has the U.S. reached a point of border security overkill?
Heightened enforcement — along with a fewer available jobs in the U.S. and an aging population in Mexico — has brought Border Patrol arrests to 40-year lows.
The U.S. has erected 650 miles of fences and other barriers on the Mexican border, almost all of it after a 2005 law gave the Homeland Security secretary power to waive environmental reviews. The administration of President George W. Bush exercised its waiver authority on hundreds of miles after years of court challenges and environmental reviews delayed construction on a 14-mile stretch in San Diego.
The Border Patrol, which has doubled to more than 21,000 agents since 2004, has also built 12 "forward operating bases" to increase its presence in remote areas. Instead of driving long distances from their stations every shift, agents stay at the camps for several days.
Lots more needs to be done, according to backers of Bishop's bill to rewrite rules on millions of acres of federal land managed by the Interior and Agriculture departments, including more than 800 miles bordering Mexico and 1,000 miles bordering Canada. The bill would waive reviews required under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and 14 other laws in dozens of wilderness areas, national forests and national parks.
"It's a paralyzing process now," Bell, 44, said as his GMC truck barreled down a dirt road on a 10-mile stretch of his ranch that borders Mexico. "They wanted to put this road in for a decade, probably even longer. They broke ground on it last year."
Bell, a burly, third-generation rancher who leases his land from the Agriculture Department, acknowledges there are noticeably fewer border crossers since the government built a fence on the eastern part of his ranch, near Nogales. In the ranch's west end, the Border Patrol opened one of its camps in 2005 — a collection of shipping containers that agents use as a base while alternating 12-hour shifts.
Yet migrants continue crossing in some rugged reaches that are well outside of cellphone range. Bell says waiving environmental reviews within 100 miles of the border may be unnecessary but that a 25-mile zone would help immensely.
"There are areas where the agents can't get to," he said. "By the time they get out of the station and get to these remote areas, then hike another two or three hours just to get close to the border, they have to come back because their day is pretty much eaten up. It's really difficult when there's no access out there."
Ladd, a fourth-generation rancher whose spread near Douglas is in a flatter, more easily traveled area of mesquite-draped hills, thinks the Border Patrol has gone far enough. The agency installed four 80-foot camera towers on his land about six years ago. In 2007, it completed a fence along the 10.5 miles of his ranch that borders Mexico.
Rainfall that runs downhill from Mexico is stopped by debris caught in the mesh fence and an adjoining raised road, Ladd says. The water is diverted to other areas, causing floods and soil erosion on his property.
Ladd, 57, thinks the bill would allow the Border Patrol to "run roughshod" over ranches and farms.
"Be careful what you wish for, they're going to tear it up," Ladd tells other ranchers. "Once they get in, it pretty well turns into a parking lot. It's really hard to get them out."
Ladd says the 37 miles of roads on his ranch are enough for the Border Patrol's needs. "Why do you need new ones?" he asks.
The Interior Department raised concerns in a survey of Arizona's Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge last year that found nearly 8,000 miles of off-road vehicle trails, blaming much of it on smuggling and Border Patrol activity. It urged the Border Patrol to rely tools like radars and cameras, which are less threatening to wildlife.
Critics of the Border Patrol's growth have long called new fences, roads and other infrastructure a threat to Sonoran pronghorn, Mexican grey wolves, jaguars and other border wildlife.
A Government Accountability Office report in 2010 offered fodder for both sides of the debate. It found Border Patrol supervisors generally felt land laws didn't hinder them on the job but that the agency sometimes encountered roadblocks. An unnamed agency took four months to review a Border Patrol request to move a camera tower in Arizona, by which time traffic had moved to another area.1 comment on this story
Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who has led opposition to the bill that has largely split along party lines, calls the effort a disguised step toward repealing environmental laws.
"The border has become a very convenient excuse to after laws that have been on the books for four or five decades," he said. "You plant your flag on the 100 miles (of border) and then build from there."
Bishop dismisses that criticism as a scare tactic and a "lousy argument."
"Sovereign countries control their borders. Anything that stops us from that is a violation of why we are a nation," he said.