HELENA, Mont. — 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 U.S. But that isn't stopping some in Congress from proposing to give border agents control over environmental laws in protected areas such as the popular tourist attraction in Montana, Washington's North Cascades National Park and all federal land within 100 miles of the U.S. border.
Associated Press interviews with northern border local sheriffs, federal officials, land managers, advocacy groups and others find that border threats in places such as the mountainous peaks of Glacier National Park are far more infrequent than in the deserts of Texas or Arizona – where illegal immigration arrests in one Border Patrol sector can run 1,000 times greater than a sector on the Canadian border.
The proposal would let the Border Patrol circumvent dozens of environmental laws from the Clean Water Act to the Endangered Species Act in areas those laws were created for: the nation's most-protected wilderness areas that fall within the 100-mile border zone with both Mexico and Canada. Supporters of the measure argue it is needed to cut through a bureaucratic gridlock where border agents have difficulty dealing with environmental laws and roadless rules.
But It has left critics wondering if the one-size-fits all approach to reshape border protection makes sense, and whether it's worth potentially marring wilderness areas that have been protected for a century or more.
Montana has become a flashpoint 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 U.S. Senate races.
Rep. Denny Rehberg of Montana, a Republican co-sponsor of the House bill who is in the midst of a fierce campaign to unseat freshman Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in 2012, has argued environmental rules should not get in the way of border protection.
Tester has joined some hunters and conservationists who argue the bill is a heavy-handed fix that allows unchecked development in places they cherish.
It's not exactly clear what the Border Patrol would do with that new authority. The bill, which has 32 co-sponsors in the U.S. 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 North Cascades National Park superintendent Chip Jenkins, who 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 tried to sneak into the country through North Cascades National Park, and in what the park service considers a success the man was caught by rangers. Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer later was caught again elsewhere by immigration officials, and after ignoring orders to leave the country, was arrested in Brooklyn, N.Y. with a pipe bomb.
Police and agents do report more smuggling activity in the national forests, compared to the parks, but sheriffs in northwestern Montana consider the problem to be rare.
"I would think it is occurring randomly. I don't think it is a continual problem," said Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry. "Most of our border area is relatively rugged and relatively inaccessible."
But Curry notes there is the potential for people to use the area as a crossing point, and there have been cases where electronic surveillance has been tripped at an abandoned port of entry just west of Glacier National Park in the Flathead National Forest.
"Somebody with the will and resources certainly could get across the border if they chose to," said Curry. "It certainly is not at the top of my list, but it is a concern, especially as it pertains to the flow of drugs across the border."
The Border Patrol in eastern Washington reports more active crossing in the national forests of that region. Spokesman James Frackelton notes several multimillion dollar seizures of drugs in recent years that were brought overland on foot. He said the British Columbia marijuana industry often sends product down south in exchange for cocaine headed north on public land smuggling routes that have been used as far back as prohibition when booze flowed south from Canada.
Frackleton said that designated wilderness areas that prevent motorized access are a frustration for border agents, and pointed out his agency views access differently than the Forest Service or Park Service.
"They are protecting natural resources and our mission is to protect the U.S. from terrorists, terrorist weapons and other threats," he said.
In the plains of Montana most of the border land is owned by private landowners or perhaps local governments_ more similar to ownership patterns predominant in Midwestern or northeastern states – and not the federal government. In that portion of rural Montana, border agents and local sheriffs report a few incidents of smuggling though rural farm fields. However, the proposal in Congress targets border patrol access to federal land – not private farms.
Republican Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah is carrying the bill that eases the restrictions and recently passed the House Natural Resources Committee along party lines. But it is one of the many GOP co-sponsors, Rehberg of Montana, who has been taking heat.
Recently, in a development potentially even more troublesome for the Republican supporters of the bill, some conservative writers have begun speaking out against it. In places like Montana where many libertarian-minded gun owners are wary of potential federal government intrusions, the idea of granting border agents new authority in the name of increased security is raising some hackles.
Chuck Baldwin, a former Constitution Party presidential candidate who is now active in Montana conservative circles, criticized Rehberg's support for the bill and recently wrote that the proposal gives "more power and authority to the federal government's emerging police state."
Rehberg, who has already worked to change the bill to ensure that border agents could not restrict hunting or other public access to land, made it clear through a spokesman that his continued support for the measure is not certain. Rehberg, in an obvious effort to appease his conservative base, has suggested the bill could be improved by requiring the border patrol first get the permission of the local sheriff before exercising the powers granted.
"The bill is still not perfect. And he is working to make it better," spokesman Jed Link said. "But at the end of the day, if this thing is not good for Montana, Denny is not going to support it."