El Paso – With its spectacular cacti, picturesque views and wide –open landscapes, Arizona's Organ Cactus National Monument attracts thousands of visitors every year.
The park also draws huge numbers of undocumented immigrants, human smugglers and Mexican drug cartels who use the pristine, protected landscape to cross illegally into the United States.
The problem of immigrants and traffickers using federally protected land to move products and people over the border has set up a battle between environmentalists and some politicians. Some environmental laws, such as the Endangered Species Act, keep U.S. Border Patrol agents from driving on areas of federally protected lands.
“Much of that is wilderness or (an) endangered species habitat or conservation habitat where the Border Patrol is prohibited from doing their job,” said Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah). “They have to do everything on foot, even though there are eight thousand miles of illegal roads on our wilderness area that has been cut by drug cartels -- and they use motorized vehicles.”
A bill, sponsored by Bishop called the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act that was passed by the Republican-controlled House, would waive Border Patrol agents from 16 environmental laws within 100 miles of the Canadian and Mexican borders on land under jurisdiction of the Department of Interior or Department of Agriculture.
I think the solution is trying to get both sides together...(Allow) Border Patrol to have access to the area, but (in a way) that’s not going to impact the environment in a negative way.
- Wayne Hilton of Las Cruces, New Mexico
The bill was passed in a package of other bills under the Conservation and Economic Growth Act in late June. In addition to driving on federally protected land, it would give U.S. Border Patrol the ability to construct and maintain roads, install equipment, and build or repair fences.
The Obama administration opposes the bill.
Laurence Gibson, executive director of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club in El Paso, said if this bill passes in the U.S. Senate it would result in some serious environmental damage.
“(The laws are) protecting land, they’re protecting drinking water, they’re protecting human health, (and) clean air,” Gibson said.
“Once you make a scar on the land, it just lays open forever,” he added. “We prefer manpower approach as opposed to infrastructure approach.”
Right now Border Patrol agents can travel on protected areas by foot or horse.
Bishop said with more access it would substantially cut down on trash left behind by cartels and undocumented immigrants.
“They’re the ones making the illegal roads; they’re the ones destroying the habitat areas,” he said. “If you stop them from doing that, we will have a better environment.”
The bill has also divided people living near the border.
Bill supporter David Villarreal said he understands the need for environmental protection, but he supports the extra access for Border Patrol.
“Endangered species are important and I love them and everything, but so are people and people (are) what comes first for me,” Villarreal said.
Villarreal believes if the bill is passed, Border Patrol would be able to save more lives, including those of people entering the United States illegally in need of medical attention.
However, Rene Baez believes the bill only fixes matters that are short-term.
“I think the immigration and the cartel issue is the issue of the decade and the environment is the issue of the century -- we need to concentrate on that.” Baez said, adding that he believes Border Patrol does an excellent job as it is and the status quo shouldn’t change.
“I think the solution is trying to get both sides together,” said Wayne Hilton of Las Cruces, New Mexico “(Allow) Border Patrol to have access to the area, but (in a way) that’s not going to impact the environment in a negative way.”
Bishop said because of failed attempts for comprehensive immigration reform, this bill is a move in the right direction.
“This is the first step to be able to say ‘We control the borders and we are putting a big dent in the drug cartel traffic.’”
It has not been announced when the bill will hit the Democrat-controlled Senate.
Patrick Manning is part of the Junior Reporter program at Fox News. Get more information on the program here.