My Great-Grandfather, President Obama, and Preserving Our Federal Lands

By Janice Kephart on March 3, 2011

Two years ago hidden camera sources in Arizona started sending me e-mails containing footage of illegal aliens unabashedly violating our federal lands with illegally-cut trails and trash by the hundreds of tons. Since then, I have produced three mini-documentaries on the subject. So far, these films have received a combined total of nearly 700,000 views. Since then, I have sought answers as to why Arizona is such a massive gateway for illegal activity. I have also tried to both analyze what the federal government has done about the illegal activity and promote real solutions to stem the escalating tide of illegal activity and attending destruction of the federal lands where most of the illegal activity occurs.

One reason that Arizona had become the scene of escalating violence and contraband and ceaseless alien smuggling, all harming our national parks and national forests, was the inability of the Border Patrol to gain unfettered access to federal lands to prevent illegal crossings and pursue illegal aliens. Why? Because the Border Patrol is subject to the same park-access rules as the general public. There were no carve-outs for the Border Patrol until the Bush administration insisted on them in a 2006 Memorandum of Understanding between the Departments of Interior and Agriculture (which manage different categories of federal lands) and the Department of Homeland Security. Even then, it is arguable whether the new requirements of the 2006 Memo actually helped the Border Patrol do its job, since part of the new rules involved the Border Patrol paying out for "destruction" of federal lands every time they conducted a high-speed chase and went off road, for example.

Yet despite what appeared to me to be a mismatch between wildlife conservation laws and border security, I certainly understood the value of the wildlife conservation laws, many of which are decades old, to protect the great natural resources of our country. What I did not understand was why the Border Patrol did not have adequate ability to patrol and apprehend the real perpetrators of the destruction – the illegal aliens. It was not as if the owners of the federal lands – the Department of Interior and Department of Agriculture – did not know exactly what activity was causing the destruction. They did. I proved this to myself with a widely distributed Freedom of Information Act request in 2009.

Some of the material I received from the request included internal memos discussing the problem within the Department of Interior, as well as PowerPoint presentations created by Park Service personnel from the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation, Organ Pipe National Monument, and Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge showing that nearly all national park destruction on these central Arizona border areas was due to illegal alien traffic. The threat from illegal activity is so bad, in fact, that for years the Park Service has completely closed these parks due to the "unacceptable level of risk to the public and staff" from the "high level of illegal activity going on" in these parks.

It seemed to me that Border Patrol access to these lands would help preserve them by helping to keep illegal aliens out. However, the Department of Interior and Agriculture's institutional policy was quite opposite: they admitted internally that the problem contributing to destruction of millions of acres of Arizona federal borderlands was due to illegal alien traffic, but publicly they blamed the Border Patrol. Under the terms of the 2006 interagency agreement referenced above, the Border Patrol has paid at least $75 million for preserving and repairing abused wildlife areas, about $67 million of which has gone directly into the Department of Interior's coffers for events like hot pursuits and arrests (all that is really allowed) that "damage" federal land.

Reading the Department of Interior testimonies to Congress since 9/11, I was supposed to think that there was a choice to be made between national park preservation and Border Patrol access. This would put me in a pickle, personally. Here, I have devoted my career for the last dozen years to investigating and trying to solve border security problems. Yet my dedication to helping preserve our national security through tough but fair border policy does not come at a price to our wilderness. In fact, by securing our border, we can save our borderland wilderness if we employ the right combination of technology, infrastructure, and personnel.

The fact is I would be contradicting a family legacy if I did not dovetail border security with saving our national parks. My great-grandfather was Horace Kephart, who helped found one of the early national parks, the Great Smoky National Park. In his most famous book published in 1917, Camping and Woodcraft, he wrote: "The man who goes afoot, prepared to camp anywhere and in any weather, is the most independent fellow on earth." What my great-grandfather did not anticipate at that time was that men would not be able to go afoot on public lands because those lands were destroyed. So pivotal was my great-grandfather to this country's commitment to environmental preservation through national parks that his work was featured by Ken Burns in a 2009 documentary series on the creation of our national park system. And just two weeks ago on February 16, 2011, President Obama singled out Horace Kephart for being an exemplar of "what citizenship is all about."

Remarks by the President on America's Great Outdoors Initiative
5:05 P.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: Well, welcome to the White House, everybody. It is great to have you here. What better place to hold our Great Outdoors event than right here, inside the East Room. …

At the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln agreed to set aside more than 60 square miles of land in the Yosemite Valley -– land he had never seen -– on the condition that it be preserved for public use. Teddy Roosevelt, of course, our greatest conservation President, wrote that "there is nothing more practical in the end than the preservation of beauty." Even FDR, in the midst of the Great Depression, enabled the National Park Service to protect America's most iconic landmarks –- from Mount Rushmore to the Statue of Liberty. So conservation became not only important to America, but it became one of our greatest exports, as America's beauty shone as a beacon to the world. And other countries started adopting conservation measures because of the example that we had set.

Protecting this legacy has been the responsibility of all who serve this country. But behind that action, the action that's been taken here in Washington, there's also the story of ordinary Americans who devoted their lives to protecting the land that they loved.

That's what Horace Kephart and George Masa did. This is a wonderful story. Two men, they met in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina – each had moved there to start a new life. Horrified that their beloved wilderness was being clear-cut at a rate of 60 acres a day, Horace and George worked with other members of the community to get the land set aside. The only catch was that they had to raise $10 million to foot the bill.

But far from being discouraged, they helped rally one of the poorest areas in the country to the cause. A local high school donated the proceeds from a junior class play. Preachers held "Smokey Mountain Sunday" services and encouraged their congregations to donate. Local businesses chipped in. And students from every grade in the city of Asheville – which was still segregated at the time – made a contribution.

So stories like these remind us what citizenship is all about. And by the way, last year Michelle and I, we were able to walk some of the trails near Asheville and benefit from the foresight of people that had come before us. Our daughters, our sons were able to enjoy what not only Teddy Roosevelt did but what ordinary folks did all across the country. It embodies that uniquely American idea that each of us has an equal share in the land around us, and an equal responsibility to protect it.

And it's not just the iconic mountains and parks that we protect. It's the forests where generations of families have hiked and picnicked and connected with nature. It's the park down the street where kids play after school. It's the farmland that's been in the family longer than anybody can remember. It's the rivers where we fish, it's the forests where we hunt.

I believe my great-grandfather had a "wonderful story" too, to put it mildly. But I also believe that we as a nation have a duty to preserve our national parks like the one created by Horace Kephart, and the only way to do that in our southwest borderlands is by keeping out illegal activity. It really is that simple.