Brad Dokken: Pilot program to benefit Northwest Angle
There was good news this past week for people who visit the Northwest Angle when U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., announced that U.S. Customs and Border Protection has selected the area for a pilot project aimed at simplifying the border-crossing process.
The pilot project will benefit tourists returning to the remote part of Minnesota after venturing into Ontario by snowmobile or boating into Ontario waters and stepping foot on Canadian soil.
As Lake of the Woods Tourism explained in a news release, U.S. citizens who fish in Canada and touch land currently must check back into the U.S. by visiting the nearest Outlying Area Reporting Station (OARS) phone upon their return.
Oddly enough, ice by definition is considered land. So, ice anglers who fish in Ontario for the day and stay at a cabin or resort on Oak or Flag islands in Minnesota have to venture to Young's Bay on the Northwest Angle mainland, site of the nearest OARS phone, to check in upon their return.
That means a round-trip of up to 16 miles in potentially dangerous weather conditions. Ditto for boaters who fish in Ontario and step foot onto an island or mainland shoreline for shore lunch or to answer nature's call.
Even if it's storming, those anglers have to drive to Young's Bay and check in at the OARS site if they touched Canadian soil during their trip.
The pilot project will alleviate that requirement by implementing a check-in process that can be done without visiting an OARS station.
Here's how Lake of the Woods Tourism described the plan, which had support from Peterson, Democratic Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, and Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn.:
• Beginning sometime next month, Lake of the Woods resorts will have the opportunity to have an iPad loaded with a U.S. Customs and Border Protection check in program. Resorts will need to provide a heated, somewhat private area with Wi-Fi connectivity. Visitors who cross into Canada and touch land then will be able to check back into the U.S. with one of the designated iPads instead of traveling to the nearest OARS phone.
"In a nutshell, providing personal info, passport credentials and answering four questions about declaration of goods will generate a video call with a Customs agent," Lake of the Woods Tourism explained in the news release. "After a short video interview, they can deny or approve your request for entering the U.S."
• The second phase of the program, tentatively scheduled for several months down the road, will allow visitors to download the same U.S. Customs and Border Protection app onto their smartphone devices. Visitors then will go through a similar info gathering session, which in turn will generate a video conference with a Customs agent.
• The third phase involves kiosks that will be installed in more permanent locations, Lake of the Woods Tourism said.
Peterson, along with Nolan, Franken and Klobuchar, all spoke highly of the upcoming pilot project in a news release from Peterson's office.
"We're pleased that U.S. Customs and Border Protection has chosen Lake of the Woods to test their new border reporting technologies," Nolan said. "This decision will help promote efficient, effective border security, and lays the foundation for its use at other entry points along the Minnesota-Canada border. Effective implementation and utilization will promote an even more robust tourism industry that supports our local economy."
Franken said he long has worked to ease the reporting burden for Minnesotans and others who visit Lake of the Woods every year.
"So I'm very pleased by the decision to move forward with this pilot program, which will improve safety and convenience for travelers and anglers while strengthening our northern Minnesota economy," Franken said.
Citing the importance of tourism and fishing to the Lake of the Woods economy, Klobuchar echoed a similar theme.
"Piloting this technology in the Northwest Angle will help make travel safer for both visitors and Minnesotans and ensure that businesses in the outdoor recreation and tourism industries are not hurt because of outdated border technology," she said.
Peterson said more details of the program will be available in the coming weeks.
"I commend U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the agency's decision to use Lake of the Woods as a testing ground for new border reporting technologies," Peterson said. "This is exciting news for tourists, resorts and border agents alike, and I look forward to a successful pilot program that includes input from our stakeholders so the United States can enhance border security while maintaining a strong local economy."