What do Wilderness and Immigrants have in Common?

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In the West, Republicans have been gunning for the Endangered Species Act since it was enacted in 1968 and targeting the Wilderness Act (1964) even longer. They and their comrades-in-arms nationwide have been sniping at immigrants with mounting ferocity since 9/11, attacks that reached a fever pitch in the last election cycle.

Imagine the fury then that would erupt if the GOP could combine these seemingly unrelated animosities on one place--the U. S.-Mexico border--a landscape they love to loathe.

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), incoming chair of the House subcommittee on public lands, is attempting to do just that. "It is unacceptable that our federal lands continue to serve as drug trafficking and human smuggling superhighways," he declared in early December. Along the 1,933-mile border, "Strict environmental regulations are enabling a culture of unprecedented lawlessness."

To combat these incursions, Bishop, whose Ogden, Utah district office is closer to Canada than Mexico, has proposed a new regulation that would allow Border Patrol agents free movement across all public lands, including those designated as wilderness. Its enactment would resolve what he dubs a "conflict between wilderness and border security."

Whether such conflict actually exists is doubtful. Last October, the Government Accountability Office noted little tension existed between the Border Patrol and federal environmental regulatory agencies. That finding has not stopped the Wall Street Journal from extolling Bishop's posturing on border-security issues and his efforts to ignite another "Sagebrush Rebellion," a longstanding western pushback against federal management of public lands that dates back to the founding of our remarkable system of national forests and parks in the early twentieth century. One hundred years later, figures like Bishop are still trying to undercut these national treasures and the pristine landscapes, scenic vistas, and cultural values they embody.

Adding a xenophobic twist to this studied anti-federalism already has produced disturbing results. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Southern California's Otay Mountain Wilderness. The 16,893-acre site lies east of San Diego, a rough high country near the border that is home to endangered butterflies, relict stands of cypress, and other threatened flora and fauna. Although the Bureau of Land Management manages the area under the provisions of the Wilderness Act, in 2005-06 Republican-controlled Congress stripped its authority to protect its unique features through the REAL ID Act and Secure Fence Act. These allowed the Department of Homeland Security to waive every law in its way, from endangered species to clean water to noise control, so that it could hammer down the controversial border-wall. In the Otay, this entailed bulldozers crashing across breathtaking mountainous desert, scarring its beauty, blasting fragile habitat, obliterating steep canyons, and disrupting wildlife migration. Similar devastation has occurred in other borderlands wilderness areas along Texas' Rio Grande Valley and in Arizona.

Whether Republicans can shred our country's environmental protections by linking them to illegal immigration and federal overreaching only time will tell. Certainly the GOP is hoping that denouncing wilderness and demonizing immigrants will help build its majority in Congress and power its 2012 run for the White House. Here's hoping they are wrong.

Photo taken around Otay Mountain by Flickr user crosby_cj. Used under a Creative Commons License.

About the Author

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author of numerous books, including "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy"
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