After 11 years, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument reopens

The “most dangerous national park” has been largely closed to the public for the last 11 years. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, on the southern Arizona border, once saw a steady flow of immigrants – and drug runners – from Mexico. On Aug. 9, 2002, ranger Kris Eggle was shot and killed while chasing a cartel hit squad, prompting park officials to close nearly 70 percent of the monument in 2003. Some small areas were later reopened.

But on Sept. 15, 2014 all of Organ Pipe’s 517 square miles were once again opened to hikers, birders and desert lovers. Park officials believe that increased border security and patrols have made the park safe for visitors to get off the beaten path. “No more armed guards,” says Sue Walter, the monument’s chief of interpretation. “(The border) has surveillance towers, vehicle barriers, pedestrian fences. We’re educating visitors and they can make their own decisions about whether they feel comfortable (going into the backcountry).”

Organ Pipe, 94 percent of which is designated wilderness, once was traveled mostly by the endangered Sonoran pronghorn and Sonoran desert tortoise. It began drawing both human and drug traffickers in the 1990s, after border security crackdowns in urban areas sent crossers to remote rural areas. Rangers routinely found themselves in high-speed chases, and they seized thousands of pounds of marijuana and other drugs each year – 17,000 pounds of pot in 2005, 100,000 pounds last year. Not surprisingly, the monument’s reputation tended to scare away visitors. Just 210,000 came in 2010.

In the wake of 9/11, the new Department of Homeland Security was authorized to construct barriers along the border without having to comply with federal, state or local environmental laws. The Border Patrol also hired thousands of new agents.

Organ Pipe now has 20 law enforcement officers, compared to 5 in 2003, and the number of Border Patrol agents in the region has jumped 20-fold, to over 500. The increased border patrols have taken a harsh toll on the park’s environment, though. 2,500 miles of new vehicle tracks were tallied in 2010.

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