KALISPELL - They come across in small airplanes and on foot, astride horses and atop snowmobiles. They hike and float and ski and dog sled their way out of Canada and across Montana's northern border, often smuggling drugs or people.
Sometimes they are caught. Sometimes not.
"What we do is one of the toughest jobs in the world," said Lonnie Moore, information officer for the Spokane Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol. "I believe we catch most of them, but we're not naive enough to think it's 100 percent. There's always room to improve."
This Sept. 11, five years after the terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, America's northern border is by most measures much more secure than at any time before. It is not, however, secure in any definitive way, and the real question in this post-9/11 world is, "How safe is safe enough?"
That's what Mike Meehan's wondering, anyway, from behind his desk at the Flathead County Sheriff's Office.
After the attacks, most all agreed that soaring, iconic buildings needed to be more robust, just in case they one day became targets. But what about that two-story office complex, or that McDonald's down the street?
Those, likely, do not demand such attention to structural detail, because no one's likely to fly an airplane into them.
Likewise, Meehan said, some parts of border security enjoy higher priority than others and demand more resources.
Sure, you could spend enough money to make every building crash-proof, but is it worth it? You could secure more border - with fences and walls and perimeter guards - but again, is it worth it? And is a walled world a place Americans wish to live in, given the realistic level of risk?
For places such as northwest Montana, remote places such as Yaak and Polebridge, Meehan's question remains an important one: "How safe is safe enough?"
"Personally," he said, "I feel secure with the system that's now in place. I'm certainly not going to go home tonight and worry about a bunch of terrorists coming across the border."
What Meehan does worry about is high-grade marijuana coming south from British Columbia. He calls it "B.C. bud," and it packs quite a wallop.
Members of the Northwest Drug Task Force say potent B.C. bud tops out at about 30 percent THC (the chemical causing the high marijuana users experience.) That compares with about 5 percent THC in locally grown pot.
A couple years ago, local law enforcement went so far as to partner with federal agencies, bringing a Black Hawk helicopter to fly the border for weeks, monitoring drug traffic.
Smuggling is a lucrative business, Meehan said, with B.C. bud commanding prices in excess of $5,000 per pound in the northern states, and as much as $8,000 a pound by the time it makes its way south to California.
And Montana's northern border is an attractive route, what with all that wild and rugged expanse rambling across uninhabited mountain valleys. Then there's the big transboundary lakes, such as Koocanusa, which Meehan notes are notoriously difficult to control.
"In a lot of those areas," Moore said, "there just isn't much population."
His Border Patrol sector covers a whole lot of big empty, from Washington's snow-capped Cascades all the way to the Continental Divide. In 2002, the year after the terrorist attacks, just 40 people patrolled all those miles of border.
In fact, a mere 300 worked the entire northern border, coast to coast. That compared to 9,000 on the nation's southern border with Mexico.
But Sept. 11, 2001, changed all that.
"We've tripled in manpower up here since September 11," Moore said, adding that "we now have seven-day-a-week, 24-hour coverage, which wasn't always the case before."
That 24/7 coverage, however, is not simply possible with a regional force that, while heavily augmented, still numbers fewer than 150. The real key, Moore said, is technology.
There are motion detectors in the woods these days, infrared cameras, heat sensors, magnetic detectors - and a whole lot more high-tech infrastructure no one is authorized to talk about.
"The magnetic detectors seemed to work the best," said Meehan. Bears trigger motion sensors, and lots of critters trip the heat sensors - but not many elk are wearing belt buckles.
"Things have improved," Meehan said of border security. "There are a lot more agents up there, and a lot more monitoring devices."
Still, current and former members of the Northern Border Task Force - a cooperative group including federal, state and local agents - know exactly how much B.C. bud they're seizing along the border. They also know how much they're finding later, flowing through their communities. So they have a pretty good handle on how much they're not catching.
All told, they figure, they're stopping only about 10 percent of the illegal border crossings made by pot smugglers.
"No, no, we've improved upon that," Moore countered. "I would say 10 percent would be too low."
But short of saying it's surely not 100 percent, no one really knows how secure the border really is.
"You can't measure a negative," said James Bunner. "How do you measure what didn't happen?"
Bunner is supervisor at the Whitefish office of the U.S. Border Patrol, and he figures the deterrence value of a bolstered force is considerable, if hard to measure.
Fewer apprehensions may, in fact, be associated with more patrols, as presence deters activity. (Actually, Moore said, there is no way to measure the success of northern border initiatives, because no one keeps track of the number of illegals contacted by various agencies in a given year.)
And so Bunner's measuring stick?
"No terrorists that we know of have ever crossed the border in Montana," he said.
And does that suggest success?
"I don't know," he admitted. "But I know in my heart of hearts that it is a little more secure than it was. I can't prove it to you. I can't give you a percentage. But I know it's better than it was."
Measuring what "better" means - and how wisely tax dollars are spent on border security - is a very slippery business. Last year, Moore said, agents in his sector apprehended about 120 people crossing the border illegally. That's a lot, but not that many more than in previous years.
The three-fold increase in agents and budgets seems not to have translated into a three-fold increase in apprehensions, and all admit some illegals continue to slip through.
So, back to Meehan's question: How safe is safe enough?
"Oh golly," Bunner said. "When I'm in uniform, I don't have an opinion on that."
The Canadian border, according to Meehan, will always be somewhat porous.
"There are areas up there where it's very dense, thick backwoods."
But the reason he doesn't lose any sleep is because intelligence gathering has been stepped up considerably. Agents often know what to look for - and where and when - thanks to information sharing between agencies and countries.
"It's kind of a free-flow association of information," Bunner said, "and it actually works very well in practice."
You don't need to monitor every inch of backwoods, Moore agreed, if you have a solid intelligence network. Sure, a few lone pot smokers might make it through, but there's security adequate now to weave a web tight enough for the bigger flies.
"If there have been any terrorists caught up on this border," Meehan said, "then I sure haven't heard about it."
Instead, those running the border - aside from the "mules" carryingB.C. bud - tend to be South Koreans.
"We see a lot of young females," Moore said, "between 18 and 25." Whether they know it or not, he said, they're often headed to work the sex industry in major metropolitan areas.
The reason, Moore said, is Canada does not require an entry visa for South Korean visitors. And once in Canada, it's a short trip across the northern border to the States.
"We pick up a group of Koreans about every couple months," Moore said.
Most are found in Washington state, south of the Vancouver's airport, or out near Havre, south of Edmonton's airport.
To slow the flow, Moore said, the Border Patrol has ramped up "citizens' academies," special classes that teach everyday folk how to become helpmates to federal agents.
"All these people in these little towns, they know what's going on," he said. "The smallness of the towns along the border here is a huge help to us."
As is the cooperative relationship between the Border Patrol, local sheriff's offices, Forest Service law enforcement and agents investigating illegal immigration.
"We do blitzes from time to time," said Jeff Copp, explaining the occasional multiagency border sweeps. Copp is special agent in charge of the region for ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A blitz, he said, often lasts a week, and - like people, technology and citizens - is an important tool for keeping tabs on illegal activity.
It also helps that the Border Patrol's Spokane Sector now has several trained dogs - including four in Montana - that not only sniff out drugs or hidden people, but also can track a scent through the wilderness.
Those tools may soon be augmented by a new Air and Marine Branch, complete with planes and boats supplied by Customs and Border Protection. Two years ago, a similar branch opened in the Seattle area with 69 officers, pilots, aircrew and mission support personnel - along with helicopters, airplanes and boats.
A branch has now been proposed for Montana - Great Falls, most likely - - but Moore could not say when it might open for business.
When it does, however, it's likely to put a dent in the latest smuggling scheme - float planes full of B.C. bud, traveling south to land on remote waterways.
"It's like a game," Moore said. "They adjust, we re-adjust."
One long-awaited adjustment likely to arrive in the next year or two is a shot of fresh blood. Some 8,000 new Border Patrol agents are expected to enter the ranks over the next two years, Moore said. And while all will start work on the southern border, some surely will make their way north.
But even with the new recruits, Meehan said, "there just aren't enough people to completely secure the border. It just can't happen, realistically. I mean, you can only do so much."
So is "so much" enough? Is safe safe enough?
Meehan, finally, answers his own question.
"Yes, I think it is. Things are much tighter than they ever were before. I think what we're doing works as well as it can. It's enough."
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