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More recently, Congress had to give the Homeland Security secretary authority to waive three dozen environmental laws to help expedite construction of the fence.

But the fights go on.

In a report last month, the Government Accountability Office said the Homeland Security and the Interior departments have been feuding over how much information the Border Patrol should provide to obtain environmental permits to build towers on public lands.

The issue has since erupted onto the House and Senate floors.

Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, attached an amendment to a Senate spending bill this year that would make sure wilderness designations aren’t used to keep the Border Patrol agents from doing their job.

“The tragedy is that the very intent of the Department of Interior to protect the environment is actually being made worse by their policy of not allowing law enforcement efforts, i.e., the Border Patrol, into those areas,” Mr. Coburn argued.

His amendment was accepted unanimously by the Senate, but still must survive a final House-Senate compromise bill.

On the House side, Republicans managed to attach an amendment to a national heritage area designation in Arizona that says the Department of Homeland Security must be consulted in such matters.

“I don’t think Americans really know that when a Border Patrol agent crosses into a national park, he has to get out of his car, park it and walk,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, the Utah Republican who has been leading the fight to give Border Patrol greater operating freedom. “I don’t think they realize that the Border Patrol has to consult with the National Park Service before they can put up an antenna on that border.”


Nowhere are the fights between security and public lands managers more acute than those places officially designated as “wilderness” — a heightened level of protection for places the government deems so pristine they should be preserved in that state, free from man-made intrusions.

Once land is given the wilderness designation, tough new rules go into effect for permissible activities there. The no-nos include building or improving roads and putting up permanent structures like towers — exactly what the Border Patrol needs to do.

One Border Patrol agent recalled as a young agent 10 years ago, agents were not above cutting their own trails on those lands if it meant easier access and more apprehensions.

“We had people driving across, creating little two-tracks to get roads in there. I was the idiot driving. We’ve progressed past that, way past,” the agent said.

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