Forests along national borders aren't patrolled, audit says

The Associated Press
4/30/03 5:58 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) -- About 1,000 miles of national forest land bordering Canada and Mexico go virtually unpatrolled by the U.S. Forest Service, creating wide swaths for terrorists and criminals to enter the country undetected, an internal government audit says.

Even though the Forest Service is not the lead agency responsible for border security, it oversees areas "that are potentially vulnerable to infiltration by terrorists, smugglers, and other criminal agents," the Agriculture Department's inspector general said in a report Wednesday

The Forest Service oversees 460 miles of land along the 3,000-mile border between the continental United States and Canada. It also monitors 450 miles between Alaska and Canada, and 60 miles along the border with Mexico.

With just 620 officers to monitor the 196.1 million acres managed by the Forest Service, a "relatively small number" of those patrol 520 miles of forest land along those borders, they said. The remaining 450 border miles aren't patrolled at all, the auditors said.

Specific numbers were omitted for security reasons, said Sharon Friend, a spokeswoman for the inspector general, "so no one would know how many or how little we had."

It was not clear whether other security services, such as the Border Patrol, had dedicated resources to patrolling national forest land in border areas.

The audit also pointed out the Forest Service's limited powers. Forest Service officers generally cannot arrest anyone entering the country illegally unless they're breaking a law enforced by the agency. But they can detain suspicious people until Border Patrol officers arrive to make an arrest.

Noting that "border security is an essential element of national security, especially in light of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks," the audit is the latest in a series of reports spotlighting significant gaps in security at the Forest Service.

Last week, the inspector general said the Forest Service has been lax in securing guns and explosives in storage buildings on federal lands and at ski resorts. And last year, the same auditors raised similar concerns about air tanker planes used to fight wildfires. Without increased oversight, terrorists could steal the planes and spray harmful chemicals, they warned.

In their latest report, the auditors said the Forest Service should work with the new Department of Homeland Security to increase monitoring of federal lands bordering Canada and Mexico. They also suggested that other agencies -- particularly the FBI and Customs Service -- share information about suspected terrorists with the Forest Service.

Forest Service officials said they agreed with most of the recommendations.

Mary Matiella, the agency's deputy chief of budget and finance, wrote in a response that the agency already works closely with other government agencies.

"In order to intensify (those efforts, the agency) would need additional resources," she said.