The Border Patrol and Grand Maraisby Stephanie Hemphill, Minnesota Public Radio
Some people in the Grand Marais area are upset about plans to build a new office for the Border Patrol. The Patrol says it needs a new office to do its job properly.
But critics say having a lot more Border Patrol officers around will threaten the quiet lifestyle of the north woods. Others say it will bring good jobs to town.
Grand Marais, Minn. — Grand Marais is a special place. Most people who visit here agree. There's the picture-perfect harbor on majestic Lake Superior, and the rugged, watery wilderness just over the hill.
Some of the people who live here say plans for an expanded Border Patrol office don't fit their idea of the place.
Staci Drouilland grew up here. She's part of an informal group fighting the plan.
"The Boundary Waters Canoe Area is a national treasure," she says. "There's nowhere like it on earth."
She's afraid that boosting security along the border by increasing the number of agents to 50 will mean the wilderness won't be wilderness anymore.
"Big fences and surveillance and towers and underground wires -- if that becomes a federal priority, northern Minnesota is in for -- I think -- a lot of trouble," she says.
In the last year the Border Patrol only arrested seven people in Grand Marais for illegal entry. Drouillard and others say there's no need to ramp up security here. She says the idea of patrolling a vast wilderness area like the Boundary Waters is absurd.
"Whether that means Border Patrol in canoes, or on portages, or in helicopters, or on ATVs or what have you, the only people that are going to feel the brunt of that are visitors and local people," she says.
Staci Drouillard isn't the only one who's concerned. Open meetings have attracted 50 or more people.
But some in Grand Marais think the expansion will be a good thing. Mayor Mark Sandbo says the region needs good jobs and young families.
"The Homeland Security building that we would have here in Grand Marais would not only secure our borders -- if you can really do that," he says, "but it would also improve our economy by providing jobs, and homes, and more economic development for Grand Marais."
Right now a handful of Border Patrol officers work out of a cramped space built in 1960, before computers.
Lonny Schweitzer is a spokesman for the division of the Border Patrol that includes Minnesota and North Dakota. He says even here, on the longest peaceful border in the world, the agency still has to be on the alert for terrorism, and needs to know who's crossing the border.
"We don't know if that just happens to be the local farmer that has been crossing in that area -- and his third cousin twice removed happens to have the next farm over -- or it's someone that's coming in to do us harm," Schweitzer says.
He says there's a good reason why there were only seven arrests in Grand Marais last year.
"Our measure of effectiveness is, we're getting fewer and fewer of those," he says. "And that's because we've increased our personnel, we've done our liaison efforts. We've had cases where we've stopped stuff in Canada before it's even made an entry into the United States."
And he says Border Patrol officers respect the special nature of the Boundary Waters. He says their surveillance planes are way up high and can't be heard from the ground. They plan to add electronic sensors, to detect vehicles and movement through infra-red monitors. But they also use low-tech methods.
"Our guys have gone in there in canoes. We've even done it on dogsled in the wintertime last year," he says. "Although patrolling the border, we can utilize snowmobiles and our aircraft, we elected to do one time in with dogs to determine if we're having entries in that (area). And we did detect some."
But that's not likely to satisfy critics of the expansion of border security. Marco Good also opposes the expansion plan. He says the Boundary Waters and Grand Marais feel to him like sacred ground -- a place he's willing to protect.
"And I don't feel like I have to protect it from the Mexicans, or the Canadians, or the Arabs," he says. "I feel like we really have to protect this from the government."
The Border Patrol also plans expansions in Duluth and International Falls. So far there's been no organized opposition from those cities.
- Morning Edition, 11/03/2006, 7:45 a.m.