Story by Christopher Conover and Will Seberger
In August 2002, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument Ranger Kris Eggle was killed in the line of duty. Allegedly the killers were drug smugglers crossing through the park, which shares a border with Mexico. Since Eggle’s death, Organ Pipe has been called the “most dangerous park” in America.
Nearly half of the park is closed to the public for safety reasons, making it a contradiction because parkland is set aside so the public can see the pristine Sonoran Desert. Yet, the Border Patrol and law enforcement rangers make daily arrests of drug smugglers and illegal border crossers.
On a tour of the closed areas of Organ Pipe, park Interim Superintendent Jim Richardson pointed out ubiquitous tire tracks cutting between established roads.
“You see ATV tracks all over, the majority of those probably will be Border Patrol tracks,” Richardson said.
Park officials are trying to repair the damage with new plantings, fences and signs to keep vehicles out of those areas. But, at times, the Border Patrol simply drives over the barriers.
“Maybe they had an emergency,” Richardson said with a sigh.
In 2006, the Border Patrol signed an agreement with the Departments of Interior and Agriculture saying agents would file a report every time they drive off road. And, that agents would only do so in times of emergency, the agreement said.
An anonymous source, who has spent thousands of hours in Organ Pipe, is afraid to speak publicly about law enforcement versus environment problems. He said he is worried about reprisals. Border Patrol does what it wants, he said, “It is their kingdom, they can go where they want even when they don’t know where they are going.”
Border Patrol officials would not agree to an interview but answered written questions about environmental policy. The Border Patrol said their agents are directed to stay on designated roads except in “exigent circumstances.” They also wrote agents are “required to complete environmental and cultural stewardship training” so they understand the balance of securing the border, while minimizing environmental damage.
Organ Pipe’s southern boundary is marked by a fence at the international boundary with Mexico. In some places that fence is a vehicle barrier, which allows animals and people to easily pass. In other places it is a 20-foot tall fence blocking all land travel
That wall is, “a total disaster for the borderlands, and it might not be something that ecosystems, the National Parks and the wildlife refuges down here will never be able to recover from,“ said Dan Millis with the Sierra Club.
In its written response to questions about the agency’s travel policy in environmentally sensitive areas, the Border Patrol defended the way it moves through Organ Pipe, as well as the use of fences, surveillance towers, and other security measures.
“The preservation of our valuable natural and cultural resources is of great importance to CBP, and we are fully engaged in efforts that consider environmental impact as we work to secure our nation’s borders,” the agency wrote.
Fences, barriers, and surveillance exist all along the U.S.-Mexico border, and U.S. Rep. Ron Barber said that is a problem.
“There is absolutely no one-size-fits-all, and that’s part of the problem we have with federal agencies, is we try to impose the same standard across the country no matter where it is, and that just doesn’t make sense,” Barber said.
The immigration reform bill, recently, passed by the U.S. Senate contains millions of dollars for more Border Patrol agents, fencing, and security technology. The problem, said the source familiar with the park, is border security is based on politics not solid numbers.
“Under the current policy if all resources were concentrated at the border then you would have very few apprehensions," he said. "But, let’s not kid anybody. the flow of traffic will not stop, it will just take a different direction. The more apprehensions that occur, the better job you are doing...that allows justifications for budgets, and it also allows for a really perverse side justification..."
Border Patrol officials said the agency doesn’t track the number of apprehensions, pounds of drugs, or number of weapons seized in Organ Pipe. It could only provide numbers for the entire Tucson sector, which stretches from the Yuma-Pima County line to the Arizona-New Mexico boundary.
Listen to an extended version of this story as aired on Arizona Spotlight:
More photos of tour at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument:
AZPM Intern, and UA Journalism student Yoohyun Jung contributed to this story.