Canada? The U.S.? Morning in canoe country. Photo: Brett Hochmuth

By Conor Mihell

The U.S. House of Representatives has voted to support an omnibus bill that would waive environmental legislation like the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act and the Clean Water Act and transfer full control of a 100-mile-wide strip of land along the United States' northern and southern boundaries to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The so-called National Security and Federal Land Protection Act (HR 1505) was rolled into the larger Republican-backed Conservation and Economic Growth Act (HR 2578), which passed by a margin of 232 to 188 on June 19. As reported in Canoe & Kayak magazine's March issue (see article below), the "border bill" threatens paddling hotspots like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Olympic National Park, the Adirondacks and Northern Forest Canoe Trail, and Texas' Big Bend National Park, among countless other wilderness areas, by facilitating fence- and road-building and other developments. The Pew Environmental Trust has mapped out all of the lands included in this sweeping legislation.

Now it's the Democrat-controlled senate's turn to review legislation that has already been denounced by the Department of Homeland Security and labeled a "conservation low point" by environmental groups like the Pew Trust and the Sierra Club. The proposal affects a whopping 600 million acres of national parks, monuments, Indian reservations, wilderness, wildlife refuges, and other lands managed by U.S. Departments of Interior and Agriculture. Speaking out against the bill, representative Ed Markey (D-Mass) called it a Republican ploy to cater to big polluters. Indeed, the General Accounting Office report recently concluded that existing federal laws do not impede border protection.

The Sierra Club Scott Nicol describes border security as a "convenient Trojan horse" to eliminate environmental impediments to development. "The irony is that the Border Patrol has not asked for the power to ignore environmental laws but instead has sent officials to testify against the bill in Congress," says Nicol. "Environmental laws have nothing to do with our economic crisis, but the bad economy provides cover for efforts to repeal or rewrite them…Waiving environmental laws would not make our nation any safer."

Border Patrol on the Rio Grande. Photo: Alan Pogue

Borderline Crazy

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Canoe & Kayak.

By Conor Mihell

The canoe route from Lake of the Woods to Lake Superior is as familiar to Dave and Amy Freeman as it was to the Voyageurs who used it to explore the heart of the continent more than 200 years ago. For 15 years, the Minnesotan wilderness guides have traversed the border country, a labyrinthine network of lakes, rivers and portages encompassing Voyageurs National Park, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA), and Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park. Traveling by canoe in the summer and dogsled in winter, they follow a border-hopping tradition that began with the continent's early explorers and continues today.

Now, that free-rambling tradition faces a stark challenge. This summer, the Freemans caught a glimpse of what may come. "It seemed like there was a push to have a bigger presence along the border," says Dave, who spotted dozens of new survey markers driven into bedrock along the international boundary.

At home in Ely, Minn., the Freemans heard about a bill introduced in Congress last April that, if passed, would allow the Department of Homeland Security to ignore environmental laws anywhere in the United States within 100 miles of an international border or coastline—including the Boundary Waters, as well as Big Bend, Olympic, Glacier and hundreds of other wilderness areas. HR 1505, dubbed the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act, would waive 36 environmental protection statutes to make way for roads, walls, surveillance stations and any other infrastructure the federal government deems necessary.

Introduced by Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, the bill would "prohibit the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture from taking action on public lands which impede border security"—broad language designed to punch enormous loopholes in the National Environmental Policy Act., the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and dozens of other landmark environmental laws. Congress has been down this road before. The 2005 Real ID Act waived dozens of environmental laws to clear the way for 650 miles of border walls in south Texas. The barriers carve up endangered ocelot habitat in the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge and threaten paddlers' access to the river.

Bishop says environmental protection laws hamper security efforts, but many of those charged with securing the border don't agree. According to a 2010 report from the nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office, "22 of 26 Border Patrol stations reported that land management laws had no effect on Border Patrol's overall measure of border security."

In contrast, the Department of the Interior—which includes the National Park Service—told lawmakers that HR 1505 would likely have a "significant impact" on its core mission of protecting natural and cultural resources on federally managed lands.

To groups like the Sierra Club, the bill looks suspiciously like a backhanded effort to undercut environmental laws.

Boundary Waters outfitter Mike Prom says Bishop's bill is laughable to anyone who's familiar with the rugged wilderness along much of the U.S.-Canada border. "What's ridiculous is that it's a three-day paddle for strong canoeists to get from Atikokan [the nearest road on the Canadian side] to the border," says Prom, whose Voyageur Canoe Outfitters is on Saganaga Lake, five miles from the border. "The wilderness in itself is a fence."

U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics confirm Prom's view. A mere 78 people were apprehended crossing illegally from Canada into Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota—an 860-mile stretch of border—during 2008, the last year for which records are available. In the BWCA, Prom says, park staff, outfitters and canoe-trippers play key roles in border enforcement. "We're the guys who are living here and we know when something's fishy," Prom says. "We want to build a relationship with [Border Patrol] like we have with game wardens and other law enforcement officials. We can go to them if we see or hear something. That's the best solution."

Canoeing across the border is still fairly simple—Americans use a mail-in permit from Canada Customs and report to the nearest U.S. Customs and Immigration office in Grand Marais, Minn., on their return. Prom says that about 40 percent of his clients cross the border to paddle in Quetico Park. If crossing the border legally became more difficult, his business would likely suffer. That's no small thing: The Boundary Waters attracts over 200,000 wilderness-seeking visitors each year, contributing a whopping $1.6 billion to the economy of northeastern Minnesota, according to the nonprofit Friends of the Boundary Waters.

As a canoeist who has experienced the joy of roaming the seamless wilderness utopia of the BWCA and Quetico, Bishop's bill strikes close to home. The House Natural Resources Committee, which Bishop chairs, reported HR 1505 to the floor of the House. Given the strong Republican majority and plenty of strong-on-security Blue Dogs on the Democratic side of the aisle, there's a good chance the House will pass it. Calmer heads prevail in the Senate, but that's scant solace. This bill is much more than political posturing. "It's scary," Prom says. "I give it a 50-50 chance of going through."

Whether HR 1505 ever becomes law or not, the wilderness along the border has already changed. That was clear last summer, when Dave and Amy Freeman finally crossed home into the United States near the end of a 2,700-mile canoe expedition from Canada's Northwest Territories to Lake Superior. They were met by a Coast Guard patrol boat manned by officers "all decked out" with firearms and combat vests. "It felt really weird, like we'd done something wrong," Dave says. "It was like we were suspects just because we were in a canoe."