Most people never notice the long, thin clearcut hacked through the mountains on either side of this border town.
The strip, parting the dense forest like a crooked hairline, looks like a logging job or path for power lines.
The jagged cut marks the border between the United States and Canada. It’s part of a 5,525-mile long swath stretching from Alaska to the Atlantic Ocean.
The line slices through rugged mountains and farm fields. In some cases, it marks the edge of people’s back yards.
“Most people think the border between the U.S. and Canada is an imaginary line. It’s not. A line actually exists,” said Marvin Crabtree. “It’s the longest undefended border in the world.”
Crabtree, based in Great Falls, Mont., is one of seven federal employees who work for the International Boundary Commission.
The commission’s mission? Clear brush and trees to keep a 10-foot-wide path along the American side of the border. The Canadians chop away another 10 feet on their side, creating a 20-foot boundary called “The Vista.”
“It’s useful for farmers, ranchers, hunters and aircraft navigation, so they know when they are crossing out of U.S. territory,” Crabtree said. “You have to know where the boundary is or you have problems.”
Clyde Moore, the Washington, D.C.-based deputy boundary commissioner, insists it’s not a waste of money to carve a line between two friendly countries.
“A lot of people say ‘Why bother? We don’t have any problems.’ But that’s exactly why we don’t have problems, because we keep a boundary there for all to see,” Moore said.
He likens it to a property line between homeowners, saying it prevents squabbles over territory.
“If we were to just let it go, I think we would have problems, perhaps serious ones, in the not-too-distant future. Maintaining a line is important to both countries.”
The United States and Canada are legally bound to keep a visible border. The two countries signed a treaty in 1908 and amended it in 1925, agreeing to maintain the boundary.
It hasn’t been easy. Moore’s department is one of the smallest federal agencies, with a $640,000 budget. The money goes for salaries, which range around $55,000 annually, and to hire summer work parties to clear brush and repair boundary markers.
The markers, made of iron or stainless steel, stand about 3 feet high. They are shaped like the Washington Monument and are supposed to be placed within sight of one another. That adds up to roughly 9,000 monuments along the border’s length.
“In some places there is a monument every mile or so, but in the highlands near Maine it’s a very crooked line. There we have markers every 30 meters,” Moore said.
In the lower 48 states there are 3,987 miles of border to clear. The line starts at Passamaquoddy Bay in Maine and ends at Point Roberts, Wash., before spilling into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
“There is no way we could clear it all in one year. We just pick sections that need the most attention,” said Crabtree, an 18-year veteran with the department.
The International Boundary Commission has one-person offices in Montana, Minnesota and Maine. Each spring and fall those bureau chiefs survey the border and prioritize maintenance.
Two work crews are sent out each summer with chain saws to fell trees and with cement to repair monuments. Sometimes markers heave out of the ground or are ripped out by farm plows or vandals.
“It’s a big job and we end up in some places where most humans have never been,” Moore said.
The most difficult places to work are in Washington’s Cascade Mountains, Montana’s Rocky Mountains and southeast Alaska. Workers either hike in and camp or are dropped in by helicopter. Years ago, pack mules were standard equipment.
“There are some high, barren peaks out there and some really beautiful places,” Moore said. “But some of the most beautiful are also the toughest to work in.”
Because of budget cuts, Moore said the commission is falling behind in its mission. Some of the Vista is overgrown and the line is disappearing. While that may not worry the general public, it bothers Moore.
“If you can’t see the line and the monuments are in disrepair, it isn’t a very effective boundary,” he said. “I have a deep concern that we are not living up to the treaty.”
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