Zinke cites ‘environmental disaster’ in sending park police to border

Zinke cites ‘environmental disaster’ in sending park police to border
© Getty Images

Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: House Science Committee hits EPA with subpoenas | California sues EPA over Trump revoking emissions waiver | Interior disbands board that floated privatization at national parks Interior disbands advisory board that floated privatization at national parks Overnight Energy: Senate eyes nixing 'forever chemicals' fix from defense bill | Former Obama EPA chief named CEO of green group | Senate reviews Interior, FERC nominees criticized on ethics MORE is doubling down on his decision to send law enforcement officers from his department, including from the National Park Service (NPS) and U.S. Park Police (USPP), to help apprehend immigrants in the country illegally along the U.S.-Mexico border.

In a string of interviews this week, Zinke heavily promoted his decision to send 22 officers to patrol two national parks in Arizona and Texas — a move first reported by The Hill in early May.


Speaking to the Fox Business Network on Thursday, Zinke called the state of the border an “environmental disaster.” He cited strewn needles and garbage on park land at the border and habitat destruction as reasons why he was deploying USPP and NPS officers.

“It’s unfettered and we need to shut the border down for a number of reasons,” Zinke said. “I’m in charge of our federal lands. I’m a steward ... and now all of a sudden our agents are down at the southern border, you know what you have to look at? Needles.”

Zinke’s efforts have drawn criticism from Democrats who say it is a political stunt.

“This is not within the purview of Interior,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee. “It’s a ridiculous idea but the motivation is political pure and simple, it has nothing to do with safety or enforcement. And it certainly doesn’t enhance the mission of the Park Service.”

The move also comes as the administration has stepped up its efforts on the border — and as President TrumpDonald John TrumpPence: It's not a "foregone conclusion" that lawmakers impeach Trump FBI identifies Pensacola shooter as Saudi Royal Saudi Air Force second lieutenant Trump calls Warren 'Pocahontas,' knocks wealth tax MORE’s frustrations with an increase in arrests has built up. Trump reportedly berated Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenTrump puts Kushner in charge of overseeing border wall construction: report Hillicon Valley: Google to limit political ad targeting | Senators scrutinize self-driving car safety | Trump to 'look at' Apple tariff exemption | Progressive lawmakers call for surveillance reforms | House panel advances telecom bills Minority lawmakers call out Google for hiring former Trump DHS official MORE at a Cabinet meeting last month for not doing enough to secure the border.

The same week Zinke announced he was sending people to the border, Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsThe shifting impeachment positions of Jonathan Turley Rosenstein, Sessions discussed firing Comey in late 2016 or early 2017: FBI notes Justice Dept releases another round of summaries from Mueller probe MORE announced that the Department of Justice was enacting a “zero tolerance” policy for individuals who cross the southern border illegally.

“If you cross the border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple,” Sessions said during a press conference at the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego in early May.

About 40 percent of the land along the U.S-Mexico border is under Interior’s purview.

Border Patrol and U.S. National Guard officers for the most part have access to patrol those areas, but Zinke said his decision was a way to support Trump’s effort to secure the border.

“I’m a former (Navy) SEAL Team 6 commander. If the president says do it, I look at the resources we have available and we get it done,” Zinke said.

According to USPP guidance obtained by The Hill, officers will be sent in rotating groups and spend “approximately 21 days” at two national park and monument sites located at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona and Amistad National Recreation Area in Texas. Both are on the border.

USPP officers are traditionally tasked with policing Interior controlled property around Washington, D.C., New York and San Francisco. NPS officers typically provide guidance and enforcement to park visitors.

The secretary provided more details on his decision in an interview with Breitbart News Radio on Monday, saying the decision was strategic because his patrol officers could make arrests.

“We’ve surged our law enforcement professionals — because they are law enforcement they can be sworn in as federal marshals,” he said. “They have arresting authority, unlike our National Guard.”

Interior announced two weeks ago that the 22 officers it first sent to the border had apprehended 13 people in their first two days on the job. Zinke also said officers had confiscated one illegal handgun and saw “evidence of recent activity along smuggling routes.”

The secretary pledged that the Interior Department will be sending additional support to the border soon. Citing security concerns, a spokesman for the department declined to provide details on how many more officers would be sent to the border, what duties they would have, where they would be stationed and how long they’d be there.

Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiHere are the Senate Republicans who could vote to convict Trump Senate confirms eight Trump court picks in three days The Hill's Morning Report - Dem impeachment report highlights phone records MORE (R-Alaska) and other Republicans cast Zinke’s decision as well within Interior’s oversight capacity.

“We have significant public lands along the border that the secretary has authority over, whether it’s park lands or I believe there are some refuges and in the course of their job, enforcement officers are charged with making sure there is a level of safety in parks,” said Murkowski, chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

While 22 Interior officers is a small number compared to the thousands of Border Patrol agents stationed at the border, some Democrats in Congress said Zinke is nonetheless overstepping his authority.

Grijalva pointed to the Interior Department’s already tight budget, which the White House has proposed to shrink further, as another reason why park police shouldn’t be sent to the border.

“Joining the National Guard and on the southern border, maybe 14,000 border patrol agents with 22 park rangers. I see it as a stunt,” Grijalva said.

Grijalva sent a letter to Zinke in early May asking him how much the deployment would cost, who asked for the additional assistance and how the two sites in Arizona and Texas were chosen.

Grijalva wrote that it was “disappointing” to first learn about the decision in the press.

Rep. Rubin Gallego, (D-Ariz.) said Zinke’s decision was meant to bolster his standing with Trump and Trump’s base.

“No. 1, this is just Zinke’s way of getting into the border propaganda,” he said. “Every two-bit Republican politician uses the border to boost themselves up with their base voters and so he’s using it just like everyone else.”

Gallego warned that the decision to send the Interior agents to the border will do more harm for other public lands that could now be neglected.

“We have problems already in terms of National Park services. Parks aren’t being maintained, we know there is a lot of smuggling going on, there are internal enforcement areas where people are killing animals, we have people growing marijuana in the middle of forests,” said Gallego.

“[Zinke] should focus on that and not just try to use this as a way to position yourself as being tough on immigration.”