Protecting 1,500 miles between Alaska and Canada a daunting task

Posted: Sunday, November 25, 2001

Hyder Alaska is a tiny dot at the extreme southern corner of Alaska's panhandle lying next to Canada. At the headwaters of the Portland Canal, it's an international cul-de-sac where the line between the countries is blurred.

American flags hang from the houses and car antenas, but the money in residents' pockets are just as likely to be Canadian ''loonies.'' The bars are in Hyder; the jobs are in Stewart, British Columbia, two miles up the road.

In fact, you have to drive through Stewart to reach Hyder by road. The former silver mining town is surrounded by the rugged Misty Fjords National Monument.

''The people just intermingle and it's more like a large community,'' said Hyder resident Mike Kraft.

Despite the familiarity, Kraft says things have changed at the lonely border crossing staffed by Canadian customs officials since the Sept. 11 attacks.

''Since 9-11 here, every time I go across the border they take their flashlight and look in my Jeep,'' Kraft said. ''It's just part of the deal.''

At Skagway, traffic cones used to stand in for U.S. Customs and Immigration and Naturalization Service workers after hours. Now the post is manned 24 hours.

And 600 miles north, on a lonely stretch of the Alaska Highway, border inspectors are spending a lot more time asking questions and opening trunks.

''It would be unusual for a vehicle to come through and not be checked now,'' said Doug Harmon, a U.S. Customs inspector at the Alcan post.

Security has generally grown tighter at border crossings that separate the two extreme northern latitude countries, but officials on both sides acknowledge gaps exist.

A Justice Department report released last year showed that only 4 percent of Border Patrol agents work on the U.S.-Canadian border, while 92 percent work the southern border of the U.S.

Lawmakers recently authorized spending $100 million more for technology improvements and to put three times more Border Patrol, Immigration and Naturalization Service inspectors and U.S. Customs Service agents on the northern border.

Congressmen have asked President Bush to use part of a $20 billion fund for anti-terrorism activities to pay for the measure.

The Canadian government recently pledged to spend $165 million to increase security along its 5,500-mile long border with the U.S.

Past talks of increasing security have often been followed by complaints of long delays for hundreds of thousands who cross daily. Canada is the nation's top trading partner, accounting for about $1.3 billion per day.

Nevertheless, there's ample evidence on a need for increased security. In December 1999 an Algerian national with terrorist ties to Afghanistan was arrested in Port Angeles, Wash., after crossing the Canadian border with a trunkful of explosives. Ahmed Ressam was accused by prosecutors of plotting to detonate a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport during the millenium celebration.

For years nothing stood between the Alaska town of Hyder and Stewart, B.C., but the Cassier Highway spur that connected them, said Marian Farrell, a Hyder resident who works at Stewart Health Center. Anyone traveling into Canada from Hyder, a daily trip for many of the 90 who live there, was supposed to telephone Canadian Customs. But ''Not many people did,'' Farrell said.

Canadian customs agents were stationed there year-round in 1996 to curb cigarette and alcohol smuggling, which the government said cost it millions in lost tax revenues.

Recently, talk in the community was that Canadian officials were considering closing the post, staffed by about five agents, ''but Sept. 11 saved their jobs,'' Farrell said.

Securing the 1,500-mile border between Alaska and Canada has always been a daunting task.

''We don't have a border patrol, and that's a lot of border,'' said Dan Holland, area director for the U.S. Customs in Alaska.

Alaska has 11 ports of entry located in airports, seaports and highways that are staffed by about 100 agents with the U.S. Customs and INS.

Miles of unforgiving wilderness, rugged mountains, swamps and lakes provide a natural barrier for portions of the Southeast and North Slope, Holland said. And then there's the bears and mosquitoes.

''You would have to be quite a wilderness expert to survive and be able to keep going in the right direction,'' Holland said.

Last month a 54-year-old man was arrested near Chicken after apparently walking more than 100 miles from Dawson City, Yukon.

Terry Chandler was arrested by border inspectors while walking on the Top of the World Highway, which is closed during the winter.

''If someone wants to illegally enter the U.S. from Canada, there are easier places to do it than from into Alaska,'' said Robert Eddy, Alaska director for the INS.

Eddy anticipates receiving 11 additional INS agents to staff land border points as part of tighter security measures.

No U.S. border agents are in Hyder, where bear watching draws thousands of tourists annually. But there's something to be said for its isolation.

''We don't tend to have any other tourists except for white elderly people,'' Farrell said. ''Someone who looks like a terrorist, they would stand out.''

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