Desert Invasion - U.S.
Parks Under Siege
By Tim Vanderpool
National Parks Magazine,
Reprinted with permission from National Parks Magazine, Tim Vanderpool, © 2002 by National Parks Conservation Association.
Woefully understaffed parks along the U.S. southern border have become the special targets of drug and people smugglers. They have left behind a trail of trash, destruction, and in some cases, death. Nowhere is the situation more pressing than at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where this summer a park ranger was gunned down by a Mexican outlaw.
From saguaro-tufted arroyos to stunning limestone canyons, Southwest borderland parks are among America's most beautiful desert treasures. But the same remote landscape that endows these parks with haunting beauty also places them at special risk. At Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Big Bend National Park in Texas, and other preserves, fragile natural and archaeological treasures are under assault by illegal cross-border traffic from Mexico.
Nowhere is the situation more pressing than in Organ Pipe Cactus, spanning 30 miles of the Arizona-Mexico border, where rugged bluffs and gentle slopes have become a war zone known for both drug and people smuggling. In August, Ranger Kris Eggle was shot and killed by a man wanted by Mexican authorities in connection with a quadruple murder. Marijuana seizures there have jumped from about 10,000 pounds two years ago to nearly 9,500 pounds in the first half of 2002 alone. Smugglers roar across the 330,000-acre park, forging ugly wildcat roads and destroying fences. Up to 1,000 undocumented immigrants also pass through Organ Pipe Cactus each day, leaving behind trash and a growing web of footpaths. More than 100 miles of trails now scar the park, creating erosion nightmares, trampling young cacti, and frightening endangered wildlife such as the Sonoran pronghorn and ferruginous pygmy owls.
Organ Pipe Cactus Superintendent Bill Wellman calls it a looming catastrophe. "We've lost most of our wilderness characteristics already, and within the last two years, we've started hearing comments from visitors about resource damage," he says. "If the situation doesn't improve, I would suspect that within ten years we'll reach a state of impairment by anybody's definition."
Still, with 324,000 visitors last year, Wellman says he hasn't seen a dramatic drop-off in the number of Americans traveling to the park-at least not yet. But the park's ability to remain a place where visitors feel safe is in jeopardy. Organ Pipe Cactus has a mere five to six rangers in the summer, and only eight in the winter when visitor traffic is heaviest. Thompson says at least 16 rangers are needed for round-the-clock monitoring. Presently, the park is staffed only from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. "When we go to bed, the smugglers come out," he says. Brazen traffickers have even used the visitor center parking lot as a nighttime staging point.
Campgrounds are also targeted by cross-border thieves, and "smugglers come down these roads at 60 to 70 miles an hour," says Chief Ranger Dale Thompson. Last year, one ranger "was nearly injured when a vehicle headed for Mexico sideswiped his vehicle and ripped the door off its hinges," he says.
Illegal traffic in Organ Pipe Cactus prompted the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Park Ranger Lodge to label it the most dangerous park to be a ranger in the United States for two years running.
The FOP report pinpointed a number of pressing security problems elsewhere. Big Bend National Park, with 1 million acres and more than 100 miles of international border, has been ranked the second most dangerous national park by the FOP. Despite its size, the park has only 12 rangers, making effective monitoring nearly impossible, says Mark Spier, Big Bend's law enforcement specialist.
Another Texas park, Padre Island National Seashore-home to the endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtle, is ranked the third most dangerous. "There are not enough rangers to regularly patrol this barrier island in the day much less at night," said the FOP report. "Drug smuggling, illegal aliens, poaching of endangered turtles and their eggs, [and] illegal commercial fishing pose a threat to the resource, the visitors, and the rangers themselves."
At Padre Island, "We're 30 minutes across the gulf from Matamoros, Mexico, so it's really quite easy to hop in a shark boat, and they're here," says Chief Ranger Randy Larson. The greatest concern: hideouts dug into the dunes harm critical habitat for several species, including the snowy plover.
And in Arizona, the FOP report called Saguaro National Park near Tucson a "home to body dumping, smuggling, and poaching." Robert Stinson, district ranger for Saguaro's western unit, says that "law enforcement . . . takes away from time we can spend protecting natural resources in the park."
Other troubled preserves on or near the border are the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and the Coronado National Memorial, both in Arizona, and the Amistad National Recreation Area in Texas.
What can be done to protect border-area parks? "A band-aid solution could be additional funding for rangers and resource specialists," says Randall Rasmussen, acting Southwest regional director for NPCA. He says NPCA is advocating for an additional $280 million for the Park Service in fiscal year 2003, some of which should go to alleviate the agency's staffing shortages. "But neglecting to fund the Cabeza Prieta at the same time would only move the effects of illegal crossings into the adjacent wildlife refuge," says Rasmussen.
Reaching that goal is an uphill battle. President Bush has proposed an increase of $107.5 million in the operation budget for national parks next year, raising the operating budget to $1.6 billion. The administration has requested an increase of $13.3 million for the U.S. Park Police.
Congressional support looks more promising. In July, the House approved a $1 million appropriation for federal lands (primarily Bureau of Land Management lands) in southeastern Arizona to begin mitigating impacts from smuggling and immigration. The funding was pushed by subcommittee member Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.). That vote followed a recent joint study by the Interior Department, Immigration and Naturalization Service, and Environmental Protection Agency, prompted by Kolbe.
"As a result of the vast amount of smuggling of humans and controlled substances in southeast Arizona," says the report, "the extremely valuable, and sometimes irreplaceable, natural and cultural resources... are in jeopardy."
The report-and the additional funding-focuses only on Kolbe's district, which doesn't include Organ Pipe Cactus. "But there's talk of another study looking at the entire border region, with ours as a model," says Kolbe spokeswoman Neena Moorjani.
If so, that model provides a solid blueprint for increased border park resources. It calls for approximately $23.5 million next year to begin addressing the environmental impacts and a total of $62.9 million over the next five years. The money would fund habitat restoration and more law enforcement officers.
While boosting law enforcement is key to recovery for border parks, it remains a daunting task. According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the number of commissioned park rangers fell by 9.3 percent in the latter half of the 1990s as officers retired or left for other federal jobs. Meanwhile, funding for park law enforcement fell from $94 million in 2001 to $90 million this year. In addition, since the September 11 terrorist attacks, rangers around the country have been siphoned away from their own duties to protect "icon" parks and other potential targets.
"Right now, we have about 1,350 agents nationwide," says Dennis Burnett, chief Park Service law enforcement administrator. "That's down 100 from where we were at this time last year, and down from a high of around 2,245 about 12 years ago." A report from the Interior Department's own Inspector General cited the need for a minimum of 600 additional rangers, says Burnett.
With limited manpower, Organ Pipe Cactus' rangers must strike a delicate balance between efficient crime prevention and further affecting the park. They have dug narrow ditches alongside several backcountry roads to stop smugglers attempting to flee into the desert. In some spots, replacing wire fence along the border with solid fencing has also been discussed. Other parks, such as the Coronado Memorial, are considering the use of backcountry surveillance cameras, but Wellman says cameras would make little sense at Organ Pipe Cactus without additional rangers, since it could be up to 90 minutes before rangers reach the site where illegal activity was spotted. Some extreme tactics, such as installing huge stadium lights in heavily trafficked areas, have been rejected as inappropriate.
Meanwhile, Organ Pipe Cactus' flora and fauna continue to deteriorate. Young cacti such as the saguaro and namesake organ pipe require the shade of paloverde and other trees to flourish. But these same shady spots are coveted by immigrants, who often clear away the maturing plants so they can rest comfortably in the shade.
Illegal traffic also frightens the endangered lesser longnose bat, pygmy owl, Sonoran pronghorn, and other wildlife from waterholes and other habitat. The pronghorn, which numbers fewer than 100 nationwide, congregate at Organ Pipe Cactus in the spring, but the shy animals are easily frightened by nighttime traffic, Wellman says. And at least one pygmy owl tagged for study has disappeared, possibly due to human disturbance.
In addition, vandalism threatens the park's prehistoric archaeological sites, remnants from the Hohokam people. Not to mention the truckloads of trash rangers retrieve from the backcountry, everything from water jugs and clothing to human excrement.
Even with help from other agencies, including sheriff's deputies, U.S. Customs, and Border Patrol agents, park rangers spend two-thirds of their time policing crime, with precious little time left for repairing the damage. "It would be foolish to try to do mitigation until we're able to move the problem out of the park," Thompson says.
The Park Service mission is to protect and preserve public lands, he says. "But being on the border makes this an interesting resource to protect with a small staff and tight funding. There is a crisis down here, and it's going to take future Americans' heritage away from them."
Tim Vanderpool lives in Tucson, Arizona, where he writes about environmental and border issues.