April 08, 2020

Agency faults U.S.-Canada border upkeep

HOULTON – Plans to secure the border with a “virtual fence” with cameras, sensors and even unmanned planes underscores the need for the U.S. and Canada to pay more attention to clearing and marking the boundary, according to the U.S. leader of the boundary agency.

Securing the border is a great idea, but the two countries have fallen so far behind on basic maintenance that law enforcement officers might have to search through overgrown vegetation for border markers in some places, said Dennis Schornack, the U.S. commissioner of the International Boundary Commission.

“If you can’t find it, then you can’t secure it,” Schornack said.

The 5,525-mile border between the two countries consists of a 20-foot vista slashed through the woods that looks something like a utility easement from coast to coast. Down the middle are monuments and markers denoting the actual border.

The International Boundary Commission came up with a five-year plan for catching up when it warned in 2004 that it had fallen so far behind its job that portions of the expansive border could become overgrown by fast-growing brush and trees.

Canada responded by allocating more money. The U.S. government did not.

The agency, consisting of two commissioners, seven field engineers and a small support staff from the two countries, is responsible for surveying and maintaining more than 8,000 monuments and reference points. The U.S. budget for the last fiscal year was $1.27 million.

Schornack will be in Washington on Monday and Tuesday for meetings with his Canadian counterparts, high-ranking homeland security officials and members of Congress to lobby for more funding for the tiny agency.

Part of the goal is to lift the agency’s profile. The agency is so small, he said, that it gets lost in the $2.7 trillion federal budget.

“The boundary has been ignored for a very long time,” Schornack said. “I’m not even sure people know we exist.”

On the Canadian side, officials are in agreement about the need for the U.S. government to contribute more money.

For 2006, Canada is contributing $2.2 million compared to $1.43 million from the United States, according to the agency. For field work, that translates to $1.3 million from Canada, or double the $615,000 spent by the United States.

“Some of the catch-up projects that the Americans are supposed to undertake are not being done. We’re doing as much as we can with our funding, but the catch-up rate is not what it should be,” said Al Arseneault, Canada’s deputy commissioner.

Some of the border areas that demand constant attention because of the fast growth of vegetation are between Washington state and British Columbia; New York and Vermont and Quebec; and Maine and Quebec and New Brunswick, officials say.

Created by treaty in 1925, the International Boundary Commission is much smaller than the larger International Boundary and Water Commission, which is responsible for flood control, sewage treatment plants, maintenance and other issues on the 1,952-mile Mexican border. The IBWC’s current annual budget is $33 million.

This summer, Kevin Haskew, the IBC field engineer based in Houlton, led a team that repaired, repainted or rebuilt 248 monuments on a 77-mile stretch of border. Two border crossings received boundary markers for the first time.

On a recent day, his workers were wrapping up the season’s work by demolishing an old, crumbling marker and building a new one out of concrete.

The workers struggled with an old, gas-powered jackhammer and a sledgehammer to break up the old marker. By day’s end, they’d torn down the old one, buried it and created a new one.

Haskew has some old equipment including a Vietnam-era tracked vehicle that he wants to get running for rough terrain. He’d like to replace the jackhammer and some other equipment, as well, but that’s not in the cards for the time being, he said.

The boundary near Haskew’s office in Houlton appears to be clear. But there are large thatches of alders and even spruce and cedar sprouting up on the boundary, making it relatively easy in places for someone to slip by unnoticed.

As the vegetation grows, a helicopter and airplane, along with new four-wheelers and snowmobiles, have been deployed to the Maine border for security, Haskew said. Maine has 611 miles of international border, while Vermont has 90 miles and New Hampshire has 58.

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