Although a new era of border security was to emerge in response to the 9-11 terror attacks, immigration-reform groups and some lawmakers say a recent internal government audit proves U.S. boundaries are still largely unprotected, especially those under U.S. Forest Service jursidiction.

In a report released last week, the Agriculture Department’s inspector general said the Forest Service, while not the lead border security agency, oversees nearly 1,000 miles of boundary “that are potentially vulnerable to infiltration by terrorists, smugglers and other criminal agents.”

The Forest Service, the Associated Press reported, manages 460 miles of land bordering Canada, while overseeing 450 miles of land between Alaska and Canada. Also, the service managed 60 miles of land on the U.S.-Mexico border.

While finding that “border security is an essential element of national security, especially in light of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks,” the inspector general’s audit is the latest in a string of reports that underscore significant security gaps at the Forest Service.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge discuss border security.

The service deploys just 620 officers to monitor more than 196 million acres of land, and a “relatively small number” are dedicated to patrolling some 520 miles of borderland. Another 450 miles are not patrolled at all, the audit said.

The lapses should warrant more concern from Washington, say immigration-reform groups.

“We cannot understand how it is that we have our troops guarding borders all over the world, yet the Bush administration can’t seem to find the political will to protect our own borders – even though 85 percent of Americans believe illegal immigration is a serious problem,” says Craig Nelson, executive director of ProjectUSA, an immigration-reform group.

“Eighteen months after 9-11 the infiltration of our borders remains conspicuous and pernicious,” adds John Keeley, director of communications for the Center for Immigration Studies. “I suspect that the reason we’re seeing America’s parks now seeing greater illegal traffic is that organized smuggling is merely responding to the government’s efforts to tighten things up at more traditional entry points.”

The inspector general also found that the Forest Service has been lax in securing guns and explosives in federal storage areas and at ski resorts. Last year, AP reported, the inspector general had similar concerns about air tankers used in fighting wildfires; terrorists could seize the planes and use their dispersal systems to spread chemical weapons, the 2002 report warned.

Forest agency managers agreed with most of the IG’s findings. In a written response, Mary Matiella, deputy chief of budget and finance with the Forest Service, said the agency is already working closely with other government agencies.

That policy was echoed by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman April 28 in a joint address with Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to members of the National Association of Farm Broadcasters in Washington, D.C.

“We’ve also, with Secretary Ridge, created a coordinated inter-agency response system for food and agriculture,” Veneman said. “Our critical partners in this, of course, have been Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services, but the food system has been recognized by the Department of Homeland Security and the administration as being an area that we need to be aware of, that we need to be prepared, and we need to continue to make sure that we have the safest food supply in the world.”

Matiella said her agency would need more help to enhance border and internal security at its facilities.

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

Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., told WorldNetDaily the IG’s report highlights problems that have been “a real concern” to him for some time.

“Two months ago [fellow Colorado Republican Rep. Scott McInnis] and I asked the General Accounting Office to examine how well the USFS and the Department of Interior were handling security problems on the public lands under their jurisdiction,” Tancredo said. Such lands are home to “hundreds of hydroelectric dams and reservoirs, as well as thousands of miles of power transmission lines, natural gas lines, and other vital infrastructure facilities,” he said.

“The inspector general’s recommendations mostly ask for better coordination between the Forest Service and the U.S. Border Patrol and the development of a ‘plan of action’ for dealing with problems. Such a plan is long overdue, and that plan should include additional manpower, training and technology devoted to locating and apprehending illegal aliens and drug smugglers who cross public lands,” said Tancredo.

Mexican Interior Minister Santiago Creel says security along his country’s border with the U.S. depends on the status of millions of illegal migrants residing north of the border. He wants Washington to grant them legal status via another amnesty, he said April 23 in Mexico City.

Immigration-reform groups remain unconvinced, both about granting millions of illegal aliens and their families a new amnesty and about the government’s pledge to beef up border security in the wake of 9-11.

“I would … think the smugglers suspect that Forest Service personnel are far less adept at thwarting illegal crossings, which is understandable, for they [are not as well-trained] as Border Patrol personnel are, and presumably they lack the detection equipment the BP has – motion detectors, night vision gear, etcetera,” said Keeley.

“But it bears repeating that our borders are so vast and so porous that it remains true that anyone who wants to get in can, and so the parks are being crossed into not only by organized smuggling syndicates but individual illegal aliens making a run for it on their own,” he told WorldNetDaily.

In referencing citizen groups who have taken to patrolling the border along expanses of Texas and Arizona, Nelson said, “It is amazing that private groups along the border have had to take matters into their own hands and are actually doing a better job in some ways than the federal government is in discouraging illegal entry.”

Tancredo also pointed out an additional concern.

“While the inspector general’s recommendations are useful and necessary, a larger problem within USFS is not addressed by the IG report,” he said. “The traditional mission of the Forest Service is that of stewardship over the forestlands themselves, and managing the public access and use of those lands.

“Apprehending drug smugglers and groups of 25 or 75 illegal aliens is a law-enforcement issue,” he continued. “While the law-enforcement capabilities of the USFS can be improved and enhanced, the Forest Service will never be able to substitute for the effective control of our borders by the U.S. Border Patrol and other agencies that have that as their primary duty.”

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