Similar legislation passed the House last year, but the Senate never took action.
Mr. Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources subcommittee that oversees public lands, said the Border Patrol’s limited access means the country has “rolled out the welcome mat for drug cartels on federal lands because environmental policies restrict the U.S. Border Patrol’s ability to secure some of the most heavily trafficked areas of the southern border.”
The issue also came up during the Senate’s debate in June on its immigration bill.
Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, offered an amendment that would have allowed the Border Patrol access to federal lands within 100 miles of the border.
“Many Americans might be surprised to know that Border Patrol agents are not given full access to all federal lands in carrying out their border security mission,” Mr. Coburn said.
But his amendment was never considered during the Senate debate, which Democrats strictly controlled, allowing only a few chosen amendments to be heard and approved.
Environmental groups oppose giving the Border Patrol exemptions, saying the government should be able to do immigration enforcement and ecological protection at the same time.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano last year said carving out an exemption for the Border Patrol was “unnecessary and a bad policy.”
“We don’t need it for our immediate border control needs. We already have an agreement with the Department of Interior. If we’re doing a chase or there are exigent circumstances, we can go onto lands without having to seek prior approval or any of that,” she testified to Congress.
The administration says it has reached memorandums of understanding among the various departments that help reduce the conflict between the Border Patrol and the conservation agencies.
But the GAO said in its report that despite the memorandums of understanding, cooperation hasn’t always occurred.
In one case, the GAO noted, when Border Patrol agents requested permission to move surveillance equipment, it took the land manager more than 4 months to conduct the required historic property assessment and grant permission, but by then illegal traffic had shifted to other areas.
The scope of trafficking through federal lands is immense.
Dozens of drug- and alien-smuggling trails run through BLM land and the western edge of the reservation between Ajo on the south and Gila Bend along Interstate 8.
The area resident who asked not to be identified used GPS coordinates to document 39 active smuggling trails in one area of the corridor in April 2012. The source said a second inventory this June identified 51 active trails along the same set of two-track roads and washes.