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Originally published November 13, 2011 at 8:20 PM | Page modified November 14, 2011 at 8:54 PM

Restless Native

Beefed-up Border Patrol jolts farmers, cows

Larry DeHaan loves his country, loves his family, loves his land. But he probably never would have started raising middle-finger salutes to those government helicopters if not for a different lifelong passion.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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FORTY-NINTH PARALLEL, Whatcom County — Larry DeHaan loves his country, loves his family, loves his land. But he probably never would have started raising middle-finger salutes to those government helicopters if not for a different lifelong passion.

"I love my cows," he says, without a hint of sarcasm, explaining how he's become the unofficial spokesman for the local Please-Call-Off-The-Border-Patrol movement.

"I guess it's because I spend so much time with them."

It's a serious relationship.

"I make my entire living off what my cows produce," DeHaan says. "When my cows are upset, I'm upset."

And when he is upset, it just might become an international incident.

DeHaan and the 500 easily excitable Holsteins of Storm Haven Farm don't just live near the U.S. border. They live on it. Given the prevailing southerly winds, every time a DeHaan cow passes gas, a British Columbian ends up holding his nose.

But a stink of another kind has been simmering here for months — what DeHaan and others call "harassment" by a swelling force of U.S. Border Patrol agents.

"Harassed" is in the eye of the harassed, of course.

But before judging, consider the setting: Rural Whatcom County is almost all farmland, with raspberry vines outnumbering people about a half-million to one. Moonless nights are still ink-black out here. It's often so quiet that the symphony of a flock of trumpeter swans taking flight can be heard a mile away.

That calm has been jarred by a bursting paramilitary force. The Border Patrol's Blaine sector, which stretches from the North Cascades to the Olympic Peninsula and south into Oregon, has swelled to 327 agents today from 45 agents in 2000.

Border Patrol officials say they're seeking ways to make their workforce blend in better with the community. But that's a big task. These agents are hard to miss — and even harder to ignore.

A fleet of white SUVs rolls down local dirt roads daily, often parked for hours, engines running, the agents shielded by dark, tinted windows.

The government is constantly watching — through video feeds from 32 remote-control cameras atop a string of 50-foot posts. Ground sensors monitor comings and goings near the border, which, except for some recently installed metal obelisks, is marked in most places here only by a lightweight farm fence or a simple ditch.

Farmers — most of whom don't want to be quoted publicly — complain about white-SUV traffic becoming so heavy that their farm roads need repair. Others say they've been left shaken and confused when agents swarmed onto their property in some mystery operation, only to withdraw without telling residents why they were there.

Most conspicuous of all is a military Blackhawk helicopter that patrols the border and, until recent months, routinely flew late-night, low-elevation sorties that not only rattled windows, but scared the bejeebers out of farm animals and farmers alike.

"We were strafed repeatedly until last summer," DeHaan says. When the Blackhawk swooped in over his property, his entire farmhouse rattled.

So, in a sense, was his sense of security on his own property.

"Our homes are private," DeHaan says. "The government does not have the right to intrude without a warrant."

Federal law gives agents authority to cross private property in pursuit of official business in a 25-mile band adjacent to the border. Residents say they don't mind that — as long as they know it's necessary, not just some sort of make-work exercise.

On the plus side, the aerial "strafings" have mostly stopped, DeHaan says — a likely outcome of a dust-up last year involving his next-door neighbor. Wayne Groen was charged by federal authorities after he was arrested for shining a spotlight at the Blackhawk as it hovered low over his property one night in September 2010.

Prosecutors said the light temporarily blinded the pilot, who the government maintains nearly lost control of the craft because — apparently unbeknown to Groen — he was wearing night-vision goggles.

Groen, arrested in his pickup, in his underwear, was acquitted of the more serious of two charges brought by U.S. attorneys in Seattle, but convicted of interfering with the operation of an aircraft. He was sentenced to two months, which he currently is serving at the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac.

Groen declined to comment. He still fears reprisals by agents, says his attorney, Jeffrey Lustick.

Neighbors of Groen, 42, who runs a manure-hauling business, have rallied around him, calling the federal prosecution an overreaction — or, worse, a chilling warning to others tempted to make trouble.

Lustick says he was shocked when prosecutors insisted on a trial, rather than a plea arrangement that might have helped soothe tensions in the community.

"The government told me they wanted to make an example of Mr. Groen," Lustick says.

A hint of that is found in government sentencing papers, where prosecutors cited "a genuine and pressing need for deterrence in this case" because Groen seemed "emboldened" by community support. Arguing for a 10-month sentence, they portrayed Groen as a man with "anger-management" problems who never showed remorse. They also cited what they called a disturbing pattern of verbal "harassment" of agents, much of which Groen disputes.

A pair of community meetings in the wake of Groen's arrest drew hundreds of residents, many of whom said they now are fearful of a law-enforcement presence that seems to treat everyone as suspicious.

Border Patrol officials insisted they got the message, and reached out to the community in small ways, such as establishing a 24-hour telephone hotline for residents. Since then, a sort of uneasy truce has settled across the Nooksack Valley — aided, in some cases, by residents drawing their own figurative lines in the sand.

DeHaan installed a twine "gate" across the main gravel road through his back pasture. The gate post holds a sign bearing what he considers something between a warning and a plea:

"NO GOVERNMENT VEHICLES BEYOND THIS POINT."

"So far, they're honoring it," he says.

DeHaan confesses he may have accidentally mowed off a government ground-sensor antenna or two out here while clearing brush. But he insists he would never dream of interfering with legitimate Border Patrol work.

"I always felt that it was a privilege to live near the border and be the first line of defense," he says. His father often told stories about bootleggers skulking along dirt roads in the area. And he's seen plenty of foot traffic on or near his property for years.

"If we saw anything out of the ordinary, we would call," he recalls. "I knew the Border Patrol because there were only five or six of them. Now, there are so many new ones, they treat me as some common criminal."

Beyond that, he and others question the steady surge in agent numbers in a sector where actual Border Patrol interceptions have noticeably decreased in recent years. He's still willing to be charitable to the green-shirted agents, he says, "but it has to go both ways. They could at least wave."

Unfortunately, the new world order dictates a different approach, suggests Richard Sinks, the Border Patrol's local community liaison.

"Our agents are aware that the community would like a little more friendliness shown by agents," he says. "Hopefully agents are smiling and waving more frequently." But, he adds, waving is usually the last thing on your mind when you're dealing with drug-runners or illegal border crossers.

Still, Sinks says the agency is aware of its image problem, and Homeland Security is responding by beefing up public-relations budgets. That might enable agents to spend more time meeting with community groups. The service understands it needs locals on its side, Sinks says.

One stereotype about the flood of new recruits — that most are military veterans who arrive with a gung-ho attitude after serving on the more-frenetic southern border with Mexico — is based at least in part in fact, Sinks says: All new agents spend at least a year down south before they can move to other posts.

When they arrive up north, they get a little indoctrination about the need to apply the brakes. "A lot of the same tactics are used," Sinks says. "It's just a lot slower pace" in the north.

Agents, DeHaan says, "need to realize, OK, these are normal people. Let's not keep aggravating them. I do believe they are coming to that conclusion. It just takes a while." He tries to stay in good humor about it all.

Sometimes, if he sees the nearby remote camera aimed for long stretches straight at his home, DeHaan will call the hotline and give them some business: "Would you please get that damn camera off our house?"

Then, watching out the window, he and wife Cheryl will see it sheepishly sweep away in another direction.

DeHaan likes to think that eventually, America will grasp its own overreaction, and things will ebb back the other way.

He plans to be here to see that. If he can't beat the big new Border Patrol, he may well outlast it. It's not like he has much choice.

"You don't just pick up a 500-cow dairy farm and move it away."

Ron Judd, a third-generation Washingtonian, scours the Northwest for stories about its people, places, traditions and endangered icons. Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or rjudd@seattletimes.com

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