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Kevin Haskew, an American field engineer with the International Boundary Commission, cleared a marker in the border town of Hodgdon, Maine.
Kevin Haskew, an American field engineer with the International Boundary Commission, cleared a marker in the border town of Hodgdon, Maine. (Globe Staff Photo / Bill Porter)

Lack of funding blurs border between US, Canada

Washington is urged to pay share of upkeep

WOODSTOCK, New Brunswick -- The line cuts across woods and prairies, meanders along rivers, hops across mountains, and strolls through a public library between Vermont and Quebec. Now, it also is running into controversy.

The United States and Canada cooperate in maintaining their 5,525-mile border, obligated by treaty to keep it cleared and prominently marked. But hundreds of miles of the frontier are fading to obscurity amid undergrowth because of a lack of funding for the International Boundary Commission, the binational organization that toils to preserve the line, the commission's US and Canadian officials say.

The governments are expected to split the cost of boundary maintenance. But while Canada is allocating just over $2 million a year, according to the commission, the United States is spending about $1.4 million.

Canada's frustration is growing over the funding for the upkeep of the mandated 20-foot-wide swath as the commission has fallen behind in efforts to keep the border clear. The commission's work has taken on greater urgency since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks increased pressure on the nations to keep the boundary secure.

The Canadian Embassy sent a diplomatic note, an official communication between governments, to the US State Department last month regarding the commission's funding, according to a US official familiar with the note.

Bernard Etzinger, a spokesman for the Canadian Embassy, declined to discuss the note. "What I can say is that we're hopeful that the US authorities will increase the budget on the US section of the IBC," Etzinger said.

State Department spokesman Eric Watnik would say only, "We are looking at the budget situation closely."

Canada will fund two-thirds of the field projects this summer for the third straight year.

"Some of our projects have to sort of sit on the back burner because we have to divert some of our funds to cover some of the US projects that they're not able to take on," said Al Arseneault, Canada's deputy commissioner for the boundary agency. "It's frustrating."

Arseneault said the commission "indirectly supports the security of each country by ensuring that the law enforcement agencies are fully aware of where the border is."

Added Dennis Schornack, the boundary agency's volunteer US commissioner: "The laws of both countries begin and end at that line, and people need to know that when they step across that line, they're stepping into a foreign country.

"From a security point of view, it is important to keep that vista, 10 feet on either side of the line, clear for visual surveillance and perhaps even instrumented surveillance," said Schornack, who was appointed by President Bush in 2002. The organization comprises a commissioner and a deputy commissioner from each country and a handful of field engineers. The United States has three field offices -- each staffed by one engineer -- in Maine, Minnesota, and Montana.

Every year the engineers are assigned projects, generally for rebuilding monuments that mark the border, clearing the boundary, and resurveying, and they hire temporary work crews. The commissioners meet twice a year to plan projects and review progress.

Kevin Haskew, an American field engineer, hires summer workers to clear Maine's 611-mile international border. He plunked a map on the table of his office in Houlton, Maine -- just across the border from Woodstock, New Brunswick -- one winter day and pointed to the St. Francis River, which follows a twisting course between Maine and Quebec. The river, however, has shifted off the line in places since the map was drawn in 1923.

A summer project to more clearly mark the boundary in some areas around the river will have to wait, Haskew said. This year, he plans to take a crew of four to the St. John River to replace decrepit reference monuments.

The tracked vehicles his crews use for hauling equipment, boundary markers, and workers were built in the 1960s. "We're always working on them, and they still don't run," he said, referring to the pair of cranky Bombardiers.

Schornack and Canadian commissioner Peter Sullivan have pushed for more US funding.

"Peter and I have spent nearly two years beating down doors in Washington, D.C.," said Schornack, who is seeking $2.7 million for 2008.

"I have met with all sorts of people in the effort to secure adequate funding to merely do our job. And it's not much; we are talking about budget dust here."

A consultant's report completed in February 2004 reflected concerns that the agency was falling behind and could no longer meet its obligation to maintain a well-defined boundary. The report cited worn and outdated equipment and recommended increasing staff, drawing new maps, and implementing a geographic information system.

Of the 256 official boundary maps, the newest were drawn in 1937.

Neglected stretches of the border include about 300 miles of the line between Alaska and Yukon Territory: The last time the United States did any maintenance work there was in 1984, said Kyle Hipsley, the boundary agency's US deputy commissioner.

A roughly 180-mile stretch from the Idaho-Montana border to Glacier National Park hasn't been cleared since the mid-1980s. Parts of the border between Quebec and Vermont also need work.

One place where the border doesn't need much work is at Haskell Free Library in Derby Line, Vt., where it's painted on the floor.

All the library's books are in Canada, and the building's front door is in the United States. "We're the only Canadian library with no front door and the only American library with no books," said assistant librarian Nancy Rumery.