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082610 Border Crossing Napolitano
Michele James, left, director of field operations for U.S. Customs and Border Protection for the Seattle region - which includes Montana - discusses the northern border with Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano during a tour of the Sweetgrass port of entry on Wednesday. Photo by Eliza Wiley/Helena Independent Record

HAVRE - Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano told concerned locals Wednesday that there may be a way to salvage an underused crossing post that was left in the lurch amid a multimillion renovation when the Canadians closed their side of the border.

The tiny border station - which not too long ago closed for the night by placing three orange traffic cones on the road - primarily serves as a passage for cross-border farmers on a lonely stretch of the border. An $8.5 million renovation was under way to deal with modern security needs when Canada announced it would close its side of the crossing that sees just around five travelers a day.

That prompted U.S. officials to halt construction amid criticism that the whole project is a waste of taxpayer money.

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Napolitano, holding a town hall in Havre with the state's two U.S. senators, was told by locals that they don't want to see the border closed, but they also don't think it needs a multimillion dollar upgrade.

"Farmers that work hard for their money want to know about this $8 million fiasco," said Julie French, a state legislator from nearby Scobey.

Napolitano said the Canadians didn't give early warning to the United States that their side of the border in northeastern Montana would be closed. She plans to send envoys to visit with both the locals and with Canadian officials to find a solution, and study the impact of closing the station entirely.

"We will do these things and we will do them in relatively short order," Napolitano said

The secretary said it may be possible to share a vastly upgraded U.S. border post with the Canadians as way to keep the Whitetail Port of Entry between Montana and Saskatchewan open. Another option would be to send the five border workers from Whitetail to another nearby port in order to expand its ability to handle increased traffic.

Napolitano said the 600-mile Montana border, with its small towns and farms that are used to trading across the border, presents unique challenges compared with other border regions.

"It is a vastly different type of border. It is large and sparsely populated," she told more than 100 people who appeared more interested in easier border crossings than security. "It needs to have lots of smaller ports along its length."

Napolitano said she understands ports are economic engines for the local economies, but the U.S. can't keep the Whitetail port open if Canadians close their Big Beaver Port of Entry.

"We will obviously not build a port where there is nowhere to port on the other side," she said. "But this one, I think, is fixable."

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who prompted the temporary construction halt earlier this month, pointed out that security improvements are needed in a new era of security.

"It's no secret that 9/11 changed everything," Tester said. "The days of putting three cones in the road, well, unfortunately they are over."

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Better communication key to securing Canadian border, officials say: Posted Wednesday, Aug. 25, at 3 p.m.

By ALLISON MAIER Helena Independent Record

HELENA - Better communication between United States and Canadian border patrol officers and increased security efforts between entry ports are important to further secure the border between the two countries, according to federal and local government officials.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, U.S. Customs and Borders Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin and Montana state senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester traveled around the state Wednesday to tour border ports in Piegan and Sweetgrass and hold meetings in Sunburst and Havre to talk about security at the U.S. northern border.

Napolitano said it's important for the U.S. to work with Canada to ease the collection and sharing of information so that border control agents can know ahead of time what to expect from the people passing through. It's also important, she said, to bolster security efforts between ports by adding more manpower and technology such as sensors and radar to keep an eye out for people who might be crossing the border illegally.

"We've gotten a lot better at that over the past few years," she said.

She said that future funding will be directed to both improve the efforts between the ports as well as the ports themselves.

Tester said the biggest issues involved with security along the northern border are associated with the large area it encompasses and difficulty coordinating communication efforts. Baucus, along with Glacier County Sheriff Wayne Dusterhoff and Interoperability Montana Executive Director Kevin Bruski, also said that more work needs to be done to make it easier for officials along the border to communicate with each other when any problems occur.

Reporter Allison Maier can be reached at (406) 447-4075 or at allison.maier@helenair.com

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