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Land-Use Policies Delay Border Surveillance

GAO report faults land management, environmental rules in surveillance deployment delays

Environmental policies directing how the U.S. Border Patrol can implement strategies in federal land located along the Mexican border—including surveillance equipment deployment—delay the implementation of such strategies, thereby creating areas where criminals are gaining access to the United States, says a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.

The Border Patrol’s access to portions of some federal lands along the southwest border has been limited because of certain land management laws, says the GAO report, “Southwest Border: More Timely Border Patrol Access and Training Could Improve Security Operations and Natural Resource Protection on Federal Lands.” Limited access to those border areas has resulted “in delays and restrictions in agents’ patrolling and monitoring” of those lands.

According to the GAO, a memorandum of understanding (MOU) exists between the Border Patrol and the Departments of Interior and Agriculture that is designed to guide Border Patrol activities on federal lands. The MOU directs the agencies to cooperate on land management issues related to surveillance and patrol of federal property. However, “such cooperation has not always occurred,” says the report. “For example, Border Patrol requested permission to move surveillance equipment to an area, but by the time the land manager conducted a historic property assessment and granted permission—more than four months after the initial request—illegal traffic had shifted to other areas.”

In addition, while the Border Patrol is directed to secure the southern border, other agencies missions can be at cross-purpose with the Border Patrol’s mission. For example, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service are focused on land management and they can limit vehicle access into certain areas. The reason for that is a tire track from a Border Patrol vehicle can disrupt the flow of water from slopes and mountain ranges, affecting the fragile desert ecosystem. “What agents perceive as routine patrol operations . . . can also have a lasting negative effect on the environment,” the report says.

The report’s recommendations include environmental and cultural resource training for the Border Patrol agents so they can become more aware of ways that patrols can reduce their environmental impact.

In addition, the GAO says agencies need to enter into agreements that would allow faster property assessments and for needed infrastructure upgrades, such as road repairs. However, the land management agencies lack the personnel and funding to address such tasks at a satisfactory pace, and some Border Patrol units have already developed effective resource-sharing agreements.

The report also called for the agencies to develop access agreements at the broad, programmatic level, where overall management objectives are defined, rather than on a case-by-case basis.