Southwest Border:

More Timely Border Patrol Access and Training Could Improve Security Operations and Natural Resource Protection on Federal Lands

GAO-11-38: Published: Oct 19, 2010. Publicly Released: Oct 19, 2010.

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Over the last 5 years, Border Patrol has nearly doubled the number of its agents on patrol, constructed hundreds of miles of border fence, and installed surveillance equipment on and near lands managed by the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture along the southwestern border. In so doing, the agency has had to comply with federal land management laws, and some have expressed concern that these laws may limit agents' abilities to detect and apprehend undocumented aliens. GAO was asked to examine (1) key land management laws Border Patrol operates under and how it and land management agencies coordinate their responsibilities under these laws; (2) how Border Patrol operations are affected by these laws; and (3) the extent to which land management agencies collect and use data related to the environmental effects of illegal activities, such as human trafficking and drug smuggling. GAO reviewed key land management laws, interviewed agents-in-charge at 26 Border Patrol stations responsible for patrolling federal southwest borderlands, and interviewed managers of these lands.

When operating on federal lands, Border Patrol has responsibilities under several federal land management laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, National Historic Preservation Act, Wilderness Act, and Endangered Species Act. Border Patrol must obtain permission or a permit from federal land management agencies before its agents can maintain roads and install surveillance equipment on these lands. Because land management agencies are also responsible for ensuring compliance with land management laws, Border Patrol generally coordinates its responsibilities under these laws with land management agencies through national and local interagency agreements. The most comprehensive agreement is a 2006 memorandum of understanding intended to guide Border Patrol activities on federal lands. Border Patrol's access to portions of some federal lands along the southwestern border has been limited because of certain land management laws, according to patrol agents-in-charge for 17 of the 26 stations, resulting in delays and restrictions in agents' patrolling and monitoring these lands. Specifically, patrol agents-in-charge for 14 of the 17 stations reported that they have been unable to obtain a permit or permission to access certain areas in a timely manner because of how long it takes for land managers to conduct required environmental and historic property assessments. The 2006 memorandum of understanding directs the agencies to cooperate with one another to complete, in an expedited manner, all compliance required by applicable federal laws, but such cooperation has not always occurred. 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 4 months after the initial request--illegal traffic had shifted to other areas. Despite the access delays and restrictions, 22 of the 26 agents-in-charge reported that the overall security status of their jurisdiction is not affected by land management laws. Instead, factors such as the remoteness and ruggedness of the terrain have the greatest effect on their ability to achieve operational control. Although 4 agents-in-charge reported that delays and restrictions have affected their ability to achieve or maintain operational control, they either have not requested resources for increased or timelier access or have had their requests denied by senior Border Patrol officials, who said that other needs were more important. While federal land managers in the borderlands region rely on Border Patrol to collect data on the extent of cross-border illegal activities on their lands, the extent of the land managers' data collection efforts on the effects of these illegal activities has varied. Some land managers monitor areas on a routine basis, some document environmental damage on an ad hoc basis, and still others collect no such data. Where collected, land managers have used these data for several purposes, including restoring lands and providing Border Patrol agents with environmental awareness training. With regard to training, most agents-in-charge wanted more-frequent, area-specific training to be provided by land managers. GAO recommends, among other things, that the Secretaries of Homeland Security, the Interior, and Agriculture take steps to help Border Patrol expedite access to portions of federal lands by more quickly initiating required assessments. In commenting on a draft of this report, the agencies generally agreed with GAO's findings and recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2012 and 2013, federal land management agencies entered into several agreements with the Department of Homeland Security that provide for Customs and Border Protection to use its own resources to pay for and to conduct the required environmental and historic property assessments. Such agreements, which are now in place for the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and Coronado National Forest, help expedite Border Patrol access on these federal land units. In addition, in 2013 Customs and Border Protection conducted programmatic environmental assessments (required by the National Environmental Policy Act) in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas for tactical infrastructure maintenance and repair along the southwestern border which consists of fences and gates, roads and bridges, drainage structures, observation zones, boat ramps, lighting and ancillary power systems, and remote video surveillance systems.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of Border Patrol operations while also protecting cultural and natural resources on federal lands along the southwestern border, and to help expedite Border Patrol's access to federal lands, the Secretaries of Homeland Security, the Interior, and Agriculture should, when and where appropriate, (a) enter into agreements that provide for Customs and Border Protection to use its own resources to pay for or to conduct the required environmental and historic property assessments and (b) prepare programmatic National Environmental Policy Act documents for Border Patrol activities in areas where additional access may be needed.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2012 and 2013, federal land management agencies entered into several agreements with the Department of Homeland Security that provide for Customs and Border Protection to use its own resources to pay for and to conduct the required environmental and historic property assessments. Such agreements, which are now in place for the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and Coronado National Forest, help expedite Border Patrol access on these federal land units. In addition, in 2013 Customs and Border Protection conducted programmatic environmental assessments (required by the National Environmental Policy Act) in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas for tactical infrastructure maintenance and repair along the southwestern border which consists of fences and gates, roads and bridges, drainage structures, observation zones, boat ramps, lighting and ancillary power systems, and remote video surveillance systems.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of Border Patrol operations while also protecting cultural and natural resources on federal lands along the southwestern border, and to help expedite Border Patrol's access to federal lands, the Secretaries of Homeland Security, the Interior, and Agriculture should, when and where appropriate, (a) enter into agreements that provide for Customs and Border Protection to use its own resources to pay for or to conduct the required environmental and historic property assessments and (b) prepare programmatic National Environmental Policy Act documents for Border Patrol activities in areas where additional access may be needed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to a November 2011 memo from Interior's Deputy Assistant Secretary for Law Enforcement Security and Emergency Management, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol developed a national training module on environmental and cultural stewardship. The departments of Interior and Agriculture provided input and comment on the module as it was developed, and personnel from all three agencies at headquarters and field levels were involved. Border Patrol issued a directive in September 2011, requiring all agents to annually take the training. A review of the training module shows that its content emphasizes site-specific training and collaboration with land managers.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of Border Patrol operations while also protecting cultural and natural resources on federal lands along the southwestern border, the Secretaries of Homeland Security, the Interior, and Agriculture, as DHS, Interior, and the Forest Service continue developing a national training module on environmental and cultural resource stewardship, should incorporate the input of Border Patrol agents and land managers into the design and development of training content, which may include training that is recurring, area-specific, and provided by land managers.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to a November 2011 memo from Interior's Deputy Assistant Secretary for Law Enforcement Security and Emergency Management, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol developed a national training module on environmental and cultural stewardship. The departments of Interior and Agriculture provided input and comment on the module as it was developed, and personnel from all three agencies at headquarters and field levels were involved. Border Patrol issued a directive in September 2011, requiring all agents to annually take the training. A review of the training module shows that its content emphasizes site-specific training and collaboration with land managers.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of Border Patrol operations while also protecting cultural and natural resources on federal lands along the southwestern border, the Secretaries of Homeland Security, the Interior, and Agriculture, as DHS, Interior, and the Forest Service continue developing a national training module on environmental and cultural resource stewardship, should incorporate the input of Border Patrol agents and land managers into the design and development of training content, which may include training that is recurring, area-specific, and provided by land managers.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2012 and 2013, federal land management agencies entered into several agreements with the Department of Homeland Security that provide for Customs and Border Protection to use its own resources to pay for and to conduct the required environmental and historic property assessments. Such agreements, which are now in place for the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and Coronado National Forest, help expedite Border Patrol access on these federal land units. In addition, in 2013 Customs and Border Protection conducted programmatic environmental assessments (required by the National Environmental Policy Act) in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas for tactical infrastructure maintenance and repair along the southwestern border which consists of fences and gates, roads and bridges, drainage structures, observation zones, boat ramps, lighting and ancillary power systems, and remote video surveillance systems.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of Border Patrol operations while also protecting cultural and natural resources on federal lands along the southwestern border, and to help expedite Border Patrol's access to federal lands, the Secretaries of Homeland Security, the Interior, and Agriculture should, when and where appropriate, (a) enter into agreements that provide for Customs and Border Protection to use its own resources to pay for or to conduct the required environmental and historic property assessments and (b) prepare programmatic National Environmental Policy Act documents for Border Patrol activities in areas where additional access may be needed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

 

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