Tim Gaynor

Arizona park, once deemed most dangerous in the US, reopens to public

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument along US-Mexico border now welcomes visitors with tips to manage smuggling hazards

ORGAN PIPE CACTUS NATIONAL MONUMENT, Ariz. — Pat Theisen and her husband Dick drove out to explore the wild reaches of this vast desert park flanking the U.S.-Mexico border, once dubbed the nation's most dangerous and largely closed to the public for more than a decade after a popular ranger was gunned down by suspected drug traffickers.

But despite the fact that the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument remains a briskly transited corridor for smugglers hauling bundles of marijuana up over the border from Mexico to meet buoyant U.S. demand, the slight retiree from Michigan is more concerned about other natural hazards.

“In the daytime, to tell you the truth, I would be more afraid of a rattlesnake hiking out here than I would somebody crossing the border,” Theisen said as she enjoyed a picnic in the park. “I just don't have a fear of that, I guess.”

The couple are among thousands of visitors rediscovering the monument, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve which has fully reopened for the first time since 2003 after authorities tightened security and adopted a pragmatic new approach to teach visitors about the potentially dangerous situations they could encounter there.

A Border Patrol truck drives north through Organ Pipe National Monument, home to saguaro and organ pipe cacti as well as endangered species including the Sonora prong-horn antelope and desert pupfish.
Tim Gaynor

The 516-square-mile park, which stretches along the border with Mexico for 31 miles in western Arizona, features a sweeping forest of saguaro and organ pipe cacti, which do not flourish anywhere else in the U.S. It is also home to endangered species, among them the Sonora pronghorn antelope and the tiny desert pupfish that thrives in its scarce ponds and springs.

In 2001, Organ Pipe topped a survey of the most dangerous parks in the U.S. for law enforcement rangers and the public. The National Park Rangers Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police noted that it was so hazardous that it was used as a “training ground for special operations teams interdicting drug smugglers from Mexico.”

Those dire warnings were borne out the following year when 28-year-old ranger Kris Eggle was fatally shot while pursuing members of a drug cartel hit squad who fled into the U.S. by driving a truck through a gap in the barbed-wire fence at the border after they committed a string of murders in Mexico. Subsequently, more than two-thirds of the monument was deemed unsafe and closed to visitors. 

It only fully reopened last September, following a recovery that began with increased security on the border. Over the intervening years, the nearby Ajo Station of the U.S. Border Patrol boosted agent numbers from 30 to around 500, while the Department of Homeland Security, the patrol's parent agency, added towers equipped with radar and night-vision cameras to spot and track incursions. DHS also boosted communications and added 35 miles of pedestrian and vehicle barriers that stopped nearly all off-road vehicle traffic through the park.

“There's just been a large increase of everything,” said Scott Good, the agent in charge of the Ajo Station. “Border Patrol has shifted to not only increasing its capability, but using its capability more smartly. We're responding to the areas of highest risk [to] mitigate things in a fast, rapid deployment so the problem doesn't expand in a particular area. We try to squash it early on.”

‘There are people that go to Yellowstone and stay on the trails, stay on the boardwalks, stay in their cars because they're educated about the danger of grizzly bears ... Down here, we wanted to increase the amount of education that we provide visitors about cross-border illegal activity.’

Superintendent Brent Range

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

The National Park Service, meanwhile, has tripled the number of rangers at the park to 15. While working to tackle border crime in the monument — where rangers seize about six tons of marijuana a year — it has also adopted a new strategy. Rather than closing areas of the park to visitors, it seeks instead to teach them about the potential dangers posed by border crime so they can decide for themselves how they want to visit.

“There are people that go to Yellowstone and stay on the trails, stay on the boardwalks, stay in their cars because they're educated about the danger of grizzly bears and they have decided that their level of comfort is to stay in their car, but there are other visitors in Yellowstone who go backpacking for multiple days and sleep on the ground and have decided that they can mitigate those risks,” Superintendent Brent Range said in a meeting at the park's headquarters, named for Eggle. “Down here, we wanted to increase the amount of education that we provide visitors about cross-border illegal activity and then let them make their decisions.”

Border patrol agents attached to the Ajo Station, which covers more than 64 miles of the border including the park, currently make around 20 arrests a night, Good said. Most are groups of 3-5 men backpacking marijuana bundles north from Mexico, although every week or so they arrest a group of about 20. Some carry guns to protect against “rip crews” that steal drug loads bound for Phoenix and Tucson.

Briefing about the smuggling activity through the monument begins at the visitors center where hikers and campers buy their permits, and is sustained with signs placed on scenic drives into the back areas of the park warning that “smuggling and illegal immigration may be encountered.”

“We educate our visitors, ‘Don't engage them, move away from them, do what you can to stay out of the situation. As soon as you can, if you have cell reception, dial 911. As soon as you see somebody in a uniform, report it to them, or come into the visitor center to report it,’” said Sue Walter, chief of interpretation at the park. “Surprisingly, you'd think we have a lot of reports but we don't. Any traffickers are trying to avoid our visitors.”

All the indications are that tweaking security and empowering visitors with frank information about possible risks is paying off. Since September when the park reopened in full, visits are up more than 25 percent over the same period a year earlier to 21,621, while camper numbers are up 41 percent to 9,291.

As visitor numbers recover, the service is now rolling out more activities in the vast park, 95 percent of which is designated wilderness. Rangers are currently working with Border Patrol on a low-impact trail system that will allow riders to follow a virtual waypoint system on horseback using GPS. They are also working with mountain bikers to create a trail system. Still under development, it is likely to follow power lines through the park to respect the wilderness designation, officials said.

The park service also supports conservation projects, including one to bring the skittish Sonora pronghorn back from the brink of extinction. It has succeeded in boosting their numbers in the monument to 50 from 22. Research projects include an archaeological study by a team from the U.S., Mexico and the sovereign Tohono O'odham nation to uncover traces of the ancient Hohokam salt and shell trading route that for centuries beat a path across the blazing desert to the Sea of Cortez.

The message that risks can be managed seemed to be reaching visitors who chatted to Al Jazeera America during a recent two-day stay at the park. While the Theisens were more concerned about snakes than smugglers as they ventured into back areas, a tourist from Nevada felt the traffic on the highway bisecting the park presented the greatest danger to visitors. Another, on his second visit to the monument this year, questioned whether the buildup in border security had in fact gone too far.

“To me it looks like the infrastructure is over the top. There's a lot of money being spent for very few people being caught,” said Jeff Caplan, a teacher from California, as a helicopter in green Border Patrol livery flew over the visitors center. “That's a lot of money being spent so that people can zoom around and catch one or two people who are trying to walk to fix food in a restaurant.”

The fact that visitors to the park are concerned about issues other than border crime is just fine by Range. He was clearly pleased that the most frequent concern raised by visitors in feedback is that water pressure is too high in the showers.

“That is the biggest concern with Organ Pipe right now,” he said. “It's not border issues, it's the park facilities.”

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