How state, national parks near border became safe for visitors again

Caution: “Smuggling and illegal immigration may be encountered in this area.”

Visitors to state and national parks, monuments and memorials in Southern Arizona have undoubtedly seen these signs posted along popular hiking trails. The sites near the Mexico border are great spots to find hiking, bird watching and camping, but also provide the perfect place for undocumented immigrants and drug smugglers to cross into the U.S.

However, visitors are now unlikely to see any illegal border activity. One reason: Border Patrol now has an operating base inside the national park unit facilities, which has led to more officers being assigned to help reduce illegal border activity.

A safer area includes Organ Pipe National Monument, which is west of the Tohono O’odham Nation in western Pima County. The 517 square-mile park stretches almost 30 miles across the Mexico border and was created in 1937 to preserve a pristine example of Sonoran Desert habitat. The monument — which boasts of hundreds of miles of scenic drives, dozens of miles of hiking grounds, and campgrounds — is home to many endangered Sonoran animals.

Smuggling and illegal border crossing became such a problem by 2003 that most sections of Organ Pipe were closed off to the public. That year, it also was named one of 10 deadliest national parks. Illegal border crossers and drug smuggling not only threaten the safety of visitors to the park, but they also damaged the health and safety of these unique ecosystems.

In 2014, Organ Pipe reopened all areas of the monument to the public, with more than 210,000 people visiting the park that year. Organ Pipe has also seen a reduction in border activity due to a higher presence of Border Patrol officers and overall decreasing trends in illegal border activity.

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