U.S. Border Patrol agents are seen in Arizona. (Los Angeles Times )
With more than a century between us of working the land, farming and ranching are in our blood. We work 1,500 miles apart — one near the Mexico border, one near the Canada line — but we share a lifestyle rooted in being stewards of America's borderlands.
As border-area landowners, we strongly oppose two bills pending in Congress: HR 1505, sponsored by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and S 803, cosponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). Both bills would give unrestricted power to the Department of Homeland Security on all public lands within 100 miles of the border (land currently under the jurisdiction of the Interior or Agriculture departments, a great deal of which is leased to ranchers and farmers).
This legislation — ostensibly for national security purposes — would allow the department to do many things on this land, including using vehicles, building roads, fences, living quarters and airstrips and deploying forward operating bases. For example, national parks advocates have raised concerns that if the department determined it needed surveillance equipment in a park — say on Chief Mountain in Glacier National Park — it could install it without any public comment or even internal review process.
These bills would allow the department to run roughshod over ranching and farming operations in the area, and waivers to existing laws would remove any incentive for it to work with landowners and communities. These bills are unnecessary and would be harmful to our rural economy, to our successful collaborations with the Border Patrol and, most important, to our public and private borderlands.
Even the DHS is not backing the bills. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a Senate subcommittee in March that unrestricted authority over public lands was unnecessary for the Border Patrol to do its job and was "bad policy." Those of us who live and work near U.S. borders know that collaboration helps rather than hinders border security efforts.
The kind of indiscriminate road building and other development allowed would not have to take into account the detrimental effects on nearby neighbors. Of particular concern in Montana, where one of us lives, is the impact on the Sweet Grass Hills, a sacred location for many tribal ceremonies. This area is also such an important source of water for surrounding communities that it is protected from mining and most motorized travel. In Arizona, where the other of us lives, we are concerned that poorly designed roads and fences will damage ongoing range land restoration work. Private landowners have spent thousands of dollars and manpower hours restoring these lands to their original state, which could all be compromised by these bills.
In addition, there are 36 landmark laws (including the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, hazardous waste laws, tribal preservation law, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the National Park Service Organic Act) that could be waived to give the DHS complete "operational control" and "immediate access" to these lands.
Many southern border ranchers already have seen the problems created by previous such waivers. The costly results for landowners and communities have included significant flood and erosion damage as well as damage to individual landowners' efforts to restore vegetation and range-land health.
The border lands of Montana and Arizona are not for everyone. It's hard to get to some of these places. It is often either bone-chillingly cold or unbearably hot. But when we are out working the land, we are still stunned by its natural beauty. We work tirelessly to restore and protect the health of this land while also relying on it to turn a profit so we can provide for our families.
We support the Border Patrol's mission to secure our borders. We also strongly believe that compliance with laws and regulations is key to ensuring that the rights of borderland landowners and rural communities are protected as the agency carries out that mission. But our natural heritage does not need to be sacrificed for the Department of Homeland Security and the Border Patrol to do their jobs.
Arlo Skari is a farmer in Montana; John Ladd is a rancher in Arizona.