When we think of the most dangerous aspects of our national parks, we often think of wildlife encounters, wildfires, isolation, devastating weather conditions, and unforgiving, precarious terrain. It is in our national parks that we experience the ironic prerogative of Mother Nature to lend awe-inspiring wonder with the simultaneous risk of the environment’s arbitrary control of our fate. It is not uncommon for sections of national parks to regularly close across the country due to strings of bear attacks, raging fires, and impassable snow-filled roads. But for over eleven years, the majority of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Ajo, Arizona, was closed to the public solely because of our own societal designs and actions. On August 9, 2002, the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (Organ Pipe) became “America’s most dangerous national park” after Kris Eggle, an Organ Pipe National Park Service ranger, was shot and killed in the line of duty while chasing down a drug cartel hit squad fleeing from Mexico. Overnight, Organ Pipe became a centerpiece of perhaps our most intrinsic dilemma in land management. How do we balance the necessities of national security with our fundamental responsibilities in environmental conservation?
Encompassing an area of 516 square miles in the heart of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was established by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1937 to protect its namesake, the Organ Pipe Cactus (Stenocereus thurberi). It is the only place in the United States where this particular species of cactus grows in the wild. The monument also protects endangered species such as the Sonoran pronghorn, Sonoran desert tortoise, lesser long-nosed bat, and the Quitobaquito pupfish. In fact, there are more flora and fauna listed under the Endangered Species Act within these lands than any other region of the continental United States. Thus in 1976, the United Nations further declared the monument as a UNESCO biosphere reserve, a designation shared with the likes of the Amazon, the Everglades and Patagonia. Recognizing the area as a vital tranche of the fragile Sonoran ecosystem, the U.S. Congress also designated over 95 percent of the land as wilderness in 1977, protecting Organ Pipe from road construction and development. On paper, Organ Pipe seemed an ideal unit of the National Park Service and a pioneering monument to ecological conservation in addition to scenic preservation.
But for all the unique biodiversity the monument protects and the iconic landscapes it preserves, in the 2000s the reputation of the park began to center around the distinct challenges of its borderlands location. Perhaps no other place in the U.S. has dealt with the delicate balancing act between national security and environmental conservation more starkly. The monument’s 31 mile southern boundary is the United States-Mexico border, unfortunately subjecting the monument to manmade peril.
In response to a doubling of the number of undocumented immigrants nationwide in the 1990s, the U.S. Congress and President Bill Clinton passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which waived fundamental environmental laws in favor of prioritizing border security improvement. As security crackdowns targeting urban border crossings increased in the 1990s, drug traffickers and illegal immigrants began to find easier passage in places such as Organ Pipe, where they could take advantage of the remoteness of the wilderness. Park rangers now routinely found themselves in high-speed chases and tense standoffs. Their important duties of interpretation and ecological preservation were increasingly replaced by the need for law enforcement responsibilities. The job of the Organ Pipe ranger became that of a narcotics officer, as rangers regularly seized thousands of pounds of drugs each year over the decade.
Moreover, the jurisdiction of the land became increasingly less defined as security and enforcement overshadowed conservation. Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, border security under the auspice of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) took on added emphasis and quickly expanded its presence in places such as Organ Pipe, accelerated by sweeping waiver authority federal legislation. Its parent agency, the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was enabled by the Congress and President George W. Bush to construct barriers, camera towers, and underground detection equipment along the border and across preserved land without having to comply with federal, state or local environmental laws. From a total of five Border Patrol agents in 2003, the number of personnel in the region ballooned to over 500 during the decade. Border Patrol agents and their security infrastructure soon replaced the distinctive cacti as the dominant guardians of the Sonoran realm. Organ Pipe became more representative of a military base than a monument to American conservation.
The escalating instability and potential violence at the monument exacerbated the deterioration of the Park Service’s mission. A consequent sharp decline in public visitation culminated in Organ Pipe’s closure following Eggle’s murder. But beyond the decaying of the wilderness experience and general state of unease for the average visitor by their presence, the ubiquity of law enforcement in Organ Pipe left an indelible human footprint on this once serenely untouched land even more than drug runners and smugglers ever did. Agents indiscriminately began to traverse across the delicate land with off-road vehicles thanks to effective amnesty against environmental laws. As a result of unregulated patrolling routes, some 2,500 miles of vehicle tracks were tallied in 2010 alone, leaving unnatural scars across the pristine desert landscape and trampled-upon vegetation that the government was supposed to protect and preserve.
Driving an ATV or truck just once across the desert soil has more impact than 50 hikers. Tire tracks carve new topography that diverts water flow away from natural pools into wheel ruts, in turn leading to the chain reaction of faster evaporation, less vegetation and a decrease in wildlife. New patrol roads and the frequency of their use have also led to noise pollution, which creates an anxious environment for wildlife, and increased dustbowl conditions, cloaking the once clean air. Border fencing and wall barricades separate animals from their own, altering the migration routes of species such as the Sonoran pronghorn, and threatening their already jeopardized existence. The incredibly rare Quitobaquito pupfish population, which only lives in two places on the planet, the Sonoyta River and Quitobaquito Springs, has found itself separated by the international border. The River and Springs are only one mile apart. While the border security complex has arguably made the land safer for recreation considering Organ Pipe has fully reopened, it has come at the cost of augmented artificial interference on the natural world.
Unfortunately, our politicians on both sides of the aisle have approached borderland conservation from the single-minded perspective of absolute security, viewing public lands as collateral damage. As part of the legislation in the initial surge of border security buildup in the early 2000s, DHS, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Agriculture signed a Memorandum of Agreement in 2006, which waived 37 environmental protection laws, representing over four decades of legislation. This included the iconic Wilderness Act, Endangered Species Act (ESA), and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
The landmark 1964 Wilderness Act established the definition of wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Wilderness areas were established as “federal land retaining [their] primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.” The Act further prohibited the construction of roads and the use of motorized vehicles in wilderness areas “unless necessary for administering the land, such as responding to emergency situations.”
The 1970 NEPA was considered to be one of the first laws to provide for broad environmental protections. Under NEPA, environmental assessments and impacts statements are required when federal activities are proposed. The 1973 ESA was enacted to protect plants and animals threatened by extinction. The law prohibits federal agencies from taking actions that “jeopardize the continued existence of any listed species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of designated critical habitat of such species.” The September 11th attacks and the escalation of illegal immigration activities in the past decade provided the justification for the reckless abandonment of our nation’s codified environmental protections.
In 2014, High Country News magazine labeled the 10,000 miles of “renegade roads” carved up by border patrols in Organ Pipe as “probably the worst violation ever of the spirit of the Wilderness Act.” Yet in March 2015, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) introduced the Arizona Borderlands Protection and Preservation Act, which called for unrestricted access for Border Patrol agents across most federal lands in southern Arizona and along the Mexican border, including national parks and wildlife refuges. Likewise, the 2013 Democratic-controlled Senate passed a bill that will spend another $47 billion to hire more than 19,000 additional Border Patrol personnel and complete additional fencing barriers along 700 miles of the border. Moreover, the 2016 Republican nominee for President, Donald Trump, has made the creation of a wall along the entire border a hallmark of his campaign. These proposals are self-defeating not only because they approach border security with unrealistic goals and expectations for success, but also because they ignore one of our core American values, the preservation of our nation’s natural treasures. The border should be treated as a zone to steward, not seal. How can policy makers balance conservation with the need to secure our southern border? There is perhaps no perfect solution, but we can certainly find a better balance between our national security demands and our national oath to conservation as represented by our national parks. Yes we have a border to protect as any nation does, but it is also in our American identity to protect the land that knows no borders and do our part to keep it “untrammeled by man.”
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In memory of Kris Eggle: “His Service and Sacrifice to the National Park Service and the People of this Country Will Never Be Forgotten”