WATERTON — The boat ride from the northern shores of Upper Waterton Lake, where the prairies of Alberta rise toward the wild Rockies of Montana, plies across emerald-green, windswept ripples from one country into another.
The M.V. International, the historic flagship originally built in Kalispell before being shipped in pieces to this townsite in the heart of Waterton Lakes National Park, began carrying passengers in 1927. During the busy summer season, when the population of Waterton spikes from about 50 residents to more than 2,000 daily visitors, the scenic cruise from Canada into the U.S. is a popular one, carrying more than 160 people up to four times a day.
Visitors aboard the International enjoy a one-hour ride that passes sawtooth cliffs, epochal geologic formations and the U.S.-Canadian border, a boundary distinguished by a single-lane slice of forest cut to ground level and marked every few hundred yards by 5-foot-tall steel monuments identifying each country’s side.
Traveling the lake’s seven-mile span, the boat enters the northern gateway to Glacier National Park. It lands at Goat Haunt, a seasonal port of entry and ranger station tucked in the wild interior of the Crown Jewel of the Continent and surrounded by soaring peaks, including Mount Cleveland, the tallest in the park.
For some, the boat ride to Goat Haunt, which is the only way to arrive here besides on foot, is an ideal entry into the northernmost backcountry of Glacier.
For many others, it is a pilgrimage. This remote point along the 49th parallel, the backbone of the continent that happens to tie two countries together, holds a distinct prominence dating back 84 years.
This is the focal point for the world’s first international peace park.
Preserving and Promoting Peace
In an evolving global environment, Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park stands out as a model of diplomacy and transboundary collaboration. As the world’s first international peace park dating back to 1932, it set the standard and paved the way for future transboundary collaborations. Today, there are 170 peace parks worldwide.
“Glacier really does have an international reputation,” Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow has said. “The 1932 designation creating the world’s first international peace park still resonates on that global scale.”
In the coming weeks, the influence and inspiration of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park will come into focus with two events intertwined around the same celebration.
Regional Rotary Clubs will host the annual Hands Across the Border Celebration, a tradition entering its 50th year. The two-day event is Sept. 16-17 and will feature presentations by Ifan Thomas, superintendent of Waterton Lakes National Park, and Mow, among other speakers celebrating the peace park and its role in humanitarian and environmental efforts.
“It is a symbolic designation, and it’s something that goes back to the Rotarians pursuing a symbol of the close relationship between the two countries,” Thomas said. “It’s evolved into something that is now a model for transboundary conservation around the world.”
Thomas said the tight-knit relationship between Waterton and Glacier has helped furnish important wildlife and habitat studies, including collaborative grizzly bear and whitebark pine research, as well as important teamwork. Last summer, while crews scrambled to fight the worst wildfire season in a decade in Glacier Park, Waterton crews suppressed a blaze near Goat Haunt in Montana.
“The U.S. folks were busy dealing with a whole bunch of fires, so we managed the incident and helped out where we could,” Thomas said. “It’s because of that longstanding partnership and working together over many decades that we have the comfort and ease of collaborating.”
Along with the Rotary International tradition, another new event, called Hands Across Borders, is being held at Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier Park from Sept. 13-18 with people from around the world coming together to discuss the peace park model and similar global initiatives. The event, organized in part through the National Park Service with the Glacier National Park Conservancy, the University of Montana and Rotary International, aims to celebrate the role of peace parks as a stimulus for cross-border partnerships.
“It’s really an opportunity to both build and share knowledge about how to catalyze these things, make them successful, and how to sustain them over time,” said Matthew McKinney, director of the Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Policy at the University of Montana.
“(This event) is to acknowledge the inspiration that the world’s first international peace park has had throughout the world and to provide a good example and a ton of inspiration for what other people are doing.”
Eighty-five years ago, on July 4-5, Rotarians from Alberta and Montana came together to host an inaugural goodwill meeting at the Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton. Nearly 100 members laid out an ambitious — and unprecedented — vision, unanimously approving a resolution supporting the creation of the world’s first international peace park between Waterton and Glacier.
As the global political climate was turning increasingly divisive and combative, the American and Canadian governments banded together and signed the resolution into law in 1932, forming the 1,720-square-mile peace park.
“The unheralded line that separates Canada and the United States is the longest unfortified border in the world today, and perhaps in all of history,” Stewart L. Udall, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, said in 1967. “It says to mankind: Let not the cartographers rule, elevate nature and human friendship.”
Protecting the Peace
Goat Haunt, the solitary heart of Glacier-Waterton International Peace Park, is also an important point along the longest undefended border in the world. One of the most remote locations in Glacier Park with access only by boat and foot, the outpost garners a fair share of attention from federal agents who have maintained high scrutiny in and around the site, keeping watch for possible illegal entries into the country.
Montana shares the longest section of border with Canada in the continental U.S., 545 miles. Forty miles of that border cut through the rugged, mountainous terrain of Glacier Park, which is guarded by border agents stationed in Whitefish and Havre, including a station and campus at the St. Mary Station and Port of Entry near Babb.
In the last decade, the U.S. government has devoted more funding to developing northern border security resources and installing technology infrastructure and other means of defense, including rolling out a growing number of unmanned aircraft to patrol from high in the sky, according to government records.
A bill is currently stagnating in Congress that would examine security along the northern border and study current and potential security issues and challenges for government agencies tasked with defending it. The Northern Border Security Review Act would provide the first significant analysis of the U.S.-Canadian border since 2010, when the Government Accountability Office conducted a similar assessment and determined the threat of potential terrorists entering the country from Canada was greater than through Mexico. Only 32 miles along the entire northern border achieved “an acceptable level of security,” the report stated.
Extremism continues to present troubling issues abroad, and concerns have increased in recent years with a spurt of terrorist activities in Canada, including a 2014 shooting at Parliament Hill.
Last week, the Canadian government released a public report on the current and emerging terrorist threats facing the country. The report, unveiled Aug. 25, details the persistent national security issues related to the so-called Islamic State and ISIL. Canadian extremist travelers represent a small but notable part of the broader international problem, the government report stated. In 2014, the Canadian government reported that about 130 individuals from Canada were abroad and suspected of engaging in terrorism-related activity. At the end of 2015, the number had grown to about 180, and more than half are believed to be in Turkey, Iraq or Syria, the report stated.
Ralph Goodale, minister of Canada’s public safety and emergency preparedness office, said returning extremist travelers may also raise serious security concerns for their home countries. At the end of 2015, the government officials knew of about 60 extremist travelers who had returned to Canada.
As national security concerns increase up north, the U.S. government has expanded its focus along the northern border, including the remote section through Glacier National Park.
A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the Beacon revealed that the U.S. government has kept a close eye specifically on the Goat Haunt area.
The U.S. Department of the Navy acknowledged a 2013 presentation proposing special operations training for SEALs in the area. The presentation was deemed secret under executive order and was provided to the Beacon via the FOIA request but was essentially entirely redacted. J.D. Thorleifson, Chief of Staff for the U.S. Navy, said in a letter that there were no records indicating the proposed training actually occurred.
A separate FOIA request with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security showed that the agency has conducted continuous operations and information gathering specific to the Goat Haunt area dating back at least a decade. The agency provided the Beacon with 82 pages of information, which was also heavily redacted. Information about the most recent operation in 2015 indicates the agency has focused on improving collaboration with other agencies in the U.S. and Canada, as well as inspection procedures and enforcement strategies.
The operation’s stated mission was to work with local, federal and international partners to “uncover and develop timely intelligence with regard to transnational criminal organizations, terrorists, terrorist weapons, alien and narcotic smuggling and illegal aliens whose activity and movement can be facilitated through the Goat Haunt area,” the FOIA request showed.
It later continued, “The intent of this operation is to patrol and utilize technology to apprehend the smugglers and illegal aliens who take advantage of the sparsely populated, rugged terrain in the Goat Haunt area to further their illegal entry into the United States, and to disrupt and degrade transnational criminal organizations that utilize this method of entry to transit (into) the United States for the purposes of furthering their criminal enterprise.”
The agency’s heightened scrutiny of the remote area is largely connected to Waterton, where more than 450,000 people visited this past year. More than 34,000 people take the boat into Goat Haunt each summer, according to the agency, and “tourists disembarking from this tour boat represent a diverse range of nationalities,” the Operation Goat Haunt 2015 presentation states. The next page, presumably expounding on that assertion, is redacted.
“The Goat Haunt area has been advertised in various outdoor recreation venues as the least visited remote area of Glacier National Park. This operation is targeted to improve the Border Patrol’s certainty of arrest of those who enter the U.S. illegally as well as reduce smuggling and crimes associated with smuggling,” the presentation states.
In April, U.S. Border Patrol agents arrested a 33-year-old man from Mongolia who had been dropped near Waterton, close to the Chief Mountain Port of Entry, and entered the U.S. illegally through the forest. The man was wearing camouflage clothing and carrying a large duffel bag when a border agent stopped him along U.S. Highway 17.
“This is a great example of how our agents exercise vigilance,” said Havre Border Patrol Sector Public Affairs Officer Michael Rappold. “They’re always ready to carry out our agency’s mission and safeguard the public.”
Rappold declined to provide any further details about the man’s motives or what he was carrying.
James B. Cox, the patrol agent in charge at the U.S. Border Patrol St. Mary Station, whose agents arrested the 33-year-old man, said illegal entries such as the April incident are fairly uncommon but can be complicated due to the rugged terrain.
“I’ve worked on the northern border and the southern border. On the southern border, you get volume. You get a lot of entries that take place everyday,” Cox said in an interview with the Beacon. “The northern border, you don’t get the volume but the instances seem to be more unique. They seem to be different. They’re more complex and require more digging into to really find out what happened and why.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security operates a Customs and Border Protection site at Goat Haunt, with agents checking travelers’ passports along the trail into Glacier Park, about 200 yards from where the M.V. International lands at Upper Waterton Lake. The National Park Service also maintains law enforcement officers at the adjacent ranger station.
The Whitefish Border Patrol station operates west of the Continental Divide while agents at the St. Mary Station keep watch from the east side through Glacier Park, including Goat Haunt.
Border agents face unique challenges when patrolling Glacier Park. They are prohibited from using motorized vehicles on parklands; instead, they roam the trails on horseback or foot. This year, the Department of Homeland Security added a boat to Upper Waterton Lake, allowing agents to travel freely at all hours of the day.
“When you get into the park, we’re limited. We want to be good partners with the National Park Service. We also want to respect the environment and respect the experience the tourists have when they come to the park,” Cox said.
“When we’re faced with challenges, we don’t just stop. We analyze it. We design, develop and implement tactics and techniques to overcome those. And we evaluate those and see if we need to adjust from there.”
The terrain requires agents to be extremely physically fit and self-sufficient in the wild, and local agents can spend several days on foot in the wilderness, searching for clues of possible illegal entry or talking with backpackers.
Agents on the east side have a unique living situation. Those who are stationed at St. Mary live at a nearby housing complex near the Piegan Port of Entry. This includes families, who all live together in a compound detached from any sizeable communities. For food and other day-to-day supplies, families either travel to Cardston in Canada or Browning, 45 minutes away.
By living and working together, these agents build a strong bond that often translates into a strong team patrolling the border, Cox said.
“I think we’ve gotten better at our situational awareness – being able to field patrols and gather information regarding what’s really happening in our area and what’s happening on the line,” Cox said.
“We all take it seriously. You want to make sure you’re doing the best you can with the resources you have to protect the border. That’s really your focus. You really don’t want anything to come through on your watch.”
Indeed, not even the tranquil setting of Goat Haunt and its idyllic peace park can avoid the perils that plague the world in the 21st century.
Yet those working together inside this relatively small but prominent stronghold believe in its transcendent influence, as they did in the beginning.
“(Waterton-Glacier) has about it something indescribable,” Montana Congressman Scott Leavitt wrote in the 1932 bill creating the international park. “Perhaps the imminent presence which broods over it and which is universally felt may best be described as peace.”