Drug runners, illegals leaving scars on AZ national monument

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Drug Runners, Migrants Crushing National Parks Along U.S.-Mexico Border

By Julie Watson Associated Press Writer

Jun 12, 2002
 
EL PINACATE BIOSPHERE RESERVE, Mexico (AP) - Drug traffickers scar volcanic desert with illicit runways, while law enforcement officials chase them through once-tranquil parks.

Thousands of migrants traipse across delicate backcountry areas - sending campers fleeing to ranger stations, fearful of crowds trekking by their tents in the night.

Wilderness areas on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border are taking a beating from an onslaught of migrants, drug traffickers and law enforcement officials, a new study says. Some national treasures in both countries have been lost forever.

Few parks have taken a greater toll than the U.N.-designated biosphere reserve El Pinacate and Arizona's adjoining Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Last year, officials caught 200,000 migrants and 700,000 pounds of drugs in Organ Pipe alone.

Last month, Pinacate and Organ Pipe officials completed the border's first environmental impact studies of illegal activities. The findings were eye-opening: It could take 20 years to recover from the damage, while some archaeological sites are gone forever.

"Organ Pipe National Monument is becoming Organ Pipe National Catastrophe," said Randall Rasmussen, program manager of the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association.

On the Mexican side, migrants and drug traffic hit just as Pinacate gained federal protection status for its 1.9 million acres in 1993.

Officials estimate smugglers drove 5,000 cars through protected wilderness last year alone. Towering Sahuaro cacti, hundreds of years old, have been carved by migrants with the names of Mexican villages.

People trampling prehistoric stone sleeping circles - created 10,000 years ago by Amerindians on their salt trail - have eroded them away.

On a recent afternoon in Organ Pipe, discarded water bottles, backpacks, hot sauce containers and Spanish-language comic books littered the ground around a sprawling Ironwood tree, estimated to be 1,000 years old.

A few miles away, sitting along U.S. Highway 85, Paolo Solis and his friend gave up and flagged down the Border Patrol after spending 12 hours walking in 100-degree heat. They were surrounded by four water jugs - only a swallow remained.

"We didn't know this was a national park," the 31-year-old farm worker from Ciudad Obregon said. "We just heard this was the easiest place to cross, but it's not. You suffer a lot. Thank God we didn't run out of water."

The area's harsh conditions have taken the lives of migrants, who flooded the region after the Border Patrol increased its presence along more populated spots in 1993. Last year, eight bodies were found in Organ Pipe and 14 other people passed through the park before dying in neighboring Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.

In Pinacate, Mexican soldiers have destroyed archaeological areas - including one with a 10,000-year-old drawing on it - mistaking them for illicit runways, Pinacate Park Director Carlos Castillo said.

In addition, the army has dug deep trenches to destroy 19 clandestine airstrips - marring hundreds of acres of volcanic desert that took 4 million years to form. The soldiers' markings could remain for another 100 years.

Both parks are home to rare animals. The cactus pygmy owl has abandoned one of its few nesting areas in Organ Pipe since smuggling took off in the area.

The endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelope population has shrunk by 68 animals since 1993. Mexico has an estimated 346 pronghorn antelopes, while 140 remain in the United States, according to the last census.

U.S. Border Patrol traffic can disturb the animals, said Bill Wellman, director of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

Environmentalists also fear a barbed-wire fence along the border may be dividing the gene pool, further threatening the species already under stress from a decade-old drought. They plan to remove the barbs from the wire this year to allow the animals to cross.

But that may not be enough.

"With all this illegal activity and the law enforcement to stop it putting another stress on them, we may start losing more animals," Wellman said.

Organ Pipe administrators need funding to fence sensitive areas of the 330,690-acre park, let migrants know they are crossing national parks and add more rangers to keep smugglers away.

In Pinacate, officials are working with the army to find alternate ways to destroy airstrips and minimize the damage left by the drug traffickers.

But it's not easy. Smugglers have threatened rangers in both parks, and law enforcement officials often have shrugged off their complaints in the face of more immediate security concerns.

"We don't have the answers, and it's probably beyond us," Wellman said. "But what we want to do is make this park uncomfortable for smugglers so they'll go someplace else."

Then, Wellman said, officials hope to "get things back as close as we can to their natural conditions" in areas considered only a few years ago to be largely untouched by humans.

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On the Net:

Pinacate Biosphere Reserve, http://www.puerto-penasco.com/pinacate.html

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, http://www.nps.gov/orpi/index.htm
 

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