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Measure Seeks to Give Border Patrol Power to Circumvent Environmental Laws

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HELENA, Mont. (AP) — No one can recall the last time an illegal immigrant hiked into the rugged and remote wilderness of Glacier National Park in an attempt to slip into the United States. But that is not stopping some in Congress from proposing to give border agents control over environmental laws in protected areas.

The proposal would let the Border Patrol circumvent dozens of environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, in areas those laws were created for: the nation’s most protected wilderness that falls within the 100-mile border zone with both Mexico and Canada.

Supporters of the measure argue that it is needed to cut through a bureaucratic gridlock where border agents have difficulty dealing with environmental rules.

But it has left critics wondering if the one-size-fits-all approach to reshape border protection makes sense, and whether it is worth potentially marring wilderness areas that have been protected for a century or more.

Montana has become a focal point for the debate partly because much of the state’s border with Canada is on federal land. And the dispute recently became a top issue in one of the nation’s most competitive Senate races.

Representative Denny Rehberg of Montana, a Republican co-sponsor of the House bill who is in the midst of a fierce campaign to unseat a freshman Democrat, Senator Jon Tester, in 2012, has argued that environmental rules should not get in the way of border protection.

Mr. Tester has joined some hunters and conservationists who argue that the bill is a heavy-handed fix that allows unchecked development in places they cherish.

It is not exactly clear what the Border Patrol would do with that new authority.

The bill, which has 32 co-sponsors in the House, suggests the agency could build new roads, keep current roads open, establish bases or even use motorized equipment in the backcountry of the national parks to shore up border protection.

But critics and conservationists ask if the actual border threat is worth taking those measures. Unlike the border with Mexico, where illegal activity is a daily problem, the proposed law has so far met with more skepticism on the northern border, where proof is scant that the likes of human traffickers are using the wilderness reaches of Montana, Idaho and Washington.

“Compared to the southern border, it is an infinitesimally small number. It is like one in a year, not thousands,” said Chip Jenkins, superintendent of North Cascades National Park, who says he believes the current laws are fine for his area of Washington State. “So far it has been working. Part of it is that the geography works to our advantage. It is incredibly rugged terrain, and very difficult to navigate.”

About 14 years ago, a would-be terrorist was caught by rangers as he tried to sneak into the country through North Cascades National Park.

The man, Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, later was caught again elsewhere by immigration officials, and after ignoring orders to leave the country, was arrested in Brooklyn with a pipe bomb.

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