browser icon
You are using an insecure version of your web browser. Please update your browser!
Using an outdated browser makes your computer unsafe. For a safer, faster, more enjoyable user experience, please update your browser today or try a newer browser.

Top Ten: Endangered Places

“I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.” ~Theodore Roosevelt

The fragile desert ecosystems and pristine wilderness areas of Arizona’s southern borderlands are being severely impacted and extensively damaged by non-U.S. citizens who have no respect for our laws, our public lands, our state’s precious natural resources, or for human life. The areas once enjoyed by American families for camping, hiking, off roading, and general recreation are now being used by armed and dangerous criminals for drug smuggling and human trafficking. As if that’s not bad enough, the U.S. government estimates that more than twenty-five million pounds of trash has been left by illegal aliens crossing our southern borders. This trash is more than merely an eyesore; it is hazardous to wildlife and poses a health risk to humans. Be extremely careful when traveling around southern Arizona. Know where you are at all times, be aware of your surroundings, follow good safety procedures, and use common sense. Avoid traveling outside of well-marked roads. Drive with caution and watch out for fast-moving vehicles and pedestrians. Illegal immigrants in distress may ask for water, food, or other assistance. Do not make contact. Keep valuables out of sight and lock your vehicle. Do not approach abandoned vehicles or backpacks because they may contain drugs stashed by smugglers. One park ranger was asked if he would consider camping with his family in one of the areas in question, and he answered “No way.” Some federal agencies have erected warning signs pointing out the many dangers that visitors will likely face should they enter certain public lands. Keep in mind, many of these areas are not located directly on the Mexican border but are used as pathways for traffickers transporting drugs and illegal immigrants to metro Phoenix and other major U.S. cities. These are some of Arizona’s most endangered – and dangerous – places.

1. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument / Quitobaquito Springs – The Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, an internationally recognized biosphere reserve located 100 miles southwest of Tucson, contains over 330,000 acres between the Ajo Mountains and the Mexican border. This is the only place in the United States where the organ pipe cactus is found, as well as 25 other varieties of cacti. Quitobaquito Springs in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a true oasis, a rarity in Arizona. It is located only a few hundred yards from the Mexican border. The Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument has protected one of the Earth’s major ecosystems in nearly unspoiled condition – up until recently. Today, the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is known as the most dangerous park in the United States. It is routinely used as an entry point for illegal immigrants and drug runners. On August 9, 2002, U.S. Park Ranger Kristopher Eggle, 28 years old, was shot and killed by Mexican drug dealers while on duty in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The western half of the park – including the scenic loop road – is now closed to the American public because of unsafe conditions due to illegal immigration and drug runner traffic. According to the National Parks Conservation Association: “Undocumented border crossings have created hundreds of miles of illegal roads and trails, left huge quantities of trash and debris, and drained or polluted the monument’s precious few natural water sources. Natural and historic resources are often found covered in graffiti or destroyed by fires set by border crossers.” The extensive damage to Organ Pipe includes the loss of endangered species and plant life due to habitat destruction in the very place that was their last hope for survival. Ron Tipton, the NPCA’s senior vice president of programs, said “This park is under siege and must get immediate attention or we run the risk of losing forever the resources that earned this national treasure a world- class designation as a biosphere reserve.”

2. Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge – Buenos Aires NWR is a landscape of rippling grassland flanked by mountains, and riparian zones rich in bird life. The refuge provides approximately 118,000 acres of habitat for some of the region’s most imperiled species of plants and wildlife (including the cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl, Pima pineapple cactus, Kearney bluestar, peregrine falcon, southwest willow flycatcher, and razorback sucker). While early settlers in the Altar Valley of southern Arizona were greeted by a vast sea of grass, overgrazing in the 1860s left the ground bare, and the delicate balance of the ecosystem was changed. Staff at Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge have worked hard over the years to piece the ecosystem back together by restoring habitat, replacing key species, and protecting others still imperiled. The semidesert grassland supports the reintroduction of masked bobwhite quail and pronghorns. Riparian (wetland) areas along Arivaca Cienega and Arivaca Creek attract an abundance of birds. A sycamore-lined stream meanders through oak woodland in Brown Canyon nestled in the Baboquivari Mountains. Buenos Aires NWR has a unique opportunity to protect remnants of naturally diverse ecosystem. Unfortunately, due to its location along the international border with Mexico, the Buenos Aires NWR is an integral part of a major drug and illegal immigrant corridor. Violence on the refuge associated with smugglers and border bandits has been well documented. The refuge has become a dumping ground for trash and abandoned vehicles. The trash left behind by illegal aliens discarded on smuggling entries in the Altar Valley alone measures metric tons. In addition, at least 25 illegal immigrants have died while crossing refuge lands, where temperatures average in the mid-90’s during summer months. Roughly 3,500 acres of the Buenos Aires NWR – about 3 percent of the park – has been closed to the American public. Federal officials say they have no plans to reopen the area. It’s like they are just freely handing the land over to the criminals. Altar Valley is now known as Cocaine Alley, because drug runners have taken over in many areas. It’s also called OTM Alley (Other Than Mexican Alley) because of the high number of non-Mexican illegal aliens apprehended in the area, many from terrorist nations in the Middle East. This isn’t a wildlife refuge. It’s a landscape under assault.

3. Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge – “Ed Abbey considered the Cabeza Prieta our greatest intact desert wilderness – largely unknown, unvisited. I wonder if the Feds know what they’ve got here: the last best shot at a big, self-regulating ecosystem in the Lower 48, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to create true wilderness in the closing years of the 20th century.” -Doug Peacock, “Desert Solitary,” in Audubon (March-April 1998). This vast and isolated haven for bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, and pronghorn is the third largest wildlife refuge in the lower 48 states. Cabeza Prieta NWR is bigger than the state of Rhode Island, and yet it has a population of zero and only one wagon track of a road. El Camino del Diablo, “the Devil’s Highway,” crosses the refuge. Jesuit Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino pioneered the route, which stretched between Mexico and California from 1699-1701. This road earned its name because of all the travelers who died along the way. The desert here is incredibly hostile to those who need water to survive. Temperatures may top 100 degrees F for 90 to 100 straight days from June to October. Saguaros loom in stark profile above the baked earth. Rugged mountain ranges cast shadows over barren desert valleys once swept by lava. Today’s visitors may also encounter unexploded ordnance. The military used this area as a gunnery and bombing range in World War II, and many types of ordnance remain on the refuge, some buried and some on the surface. Its 56-mile shared border with Sonora, Mexico, might well be the loneliest international boundary on the continent – except that it’s one of the most active places for illegal immigrants and drug smugglers. More than 90 percent of Cabeza Prieta is an officially designated wilderness area where vehicles are banned. And yet the virgin desert has been scarred by more than 200 miles of illegal roads that destroy vegetation, change water flows, and cause erosion. This illegal activity also leaves behind a trail of garbage, waste, and abandoned vehicles littering the landscape. Ironically, the Border Patrol is not allowed to use motorized vehicles or mechanized equipment on designated federal wilderness lands, which significantly impacts their ability to effectively control crime.

4. Interstate 8 Corridor between Casa Grande and Gila Bend – The signs read “DANGER: PUBLIC WARNING, TRAVEL NOT RECOMMENDED. Active drug and human smuggling area. Visitors may encounter armed criminals and smuggling vehicles travelling at high rates of speed. Stay away from trash, clothing, backpacks and abandoned vehicles. If you see suspicious activity DO NOT CONFRONT! Move away and call 911.” Tons of illegal drugs are being smuggled into the United States from Mexico on a daily basis. The cartels operate as finely tuned military units. They have lookouts to communicate any danger or obstruction to their movements. They are heavily armed and have used deadly force to protect their shipments across the border. The groups range in size from four or five to a hundred or more per trip. An unnamed member of the Los Zetas drug-trafficking organization says: “We post our own people all along the route to I-8 [from Mexico] and near the transfer points on the highway mile markers. We place our spotters on high ground and fly ultralight aircraft; both have communication equipment, radios and throw away cell phones. They are paid to watch for authorities and intruders, such as gangs, dangerous animals, American tourist, hikers, campers and all others who may be in the area.” For these reasons, the Bureau of Land Management encourages visitors to use public lands north of I-8 and advises them NOT to enter the area south of I-8.

5. Saguaro National Park – This park gets its name from the saguaro cactus which is native to the region. The Giant Saguaro is the universal symbol of the American West. And yet, these majestic plants are found in just a small portion of the desert Southwest. The saguaro cactus only grows naturally in the Sonoran Desert. Saguaro National Park protects some of the most impressive forests of these sub-tropical giants. There are approximately 1.6 million individual saguaro plants growing within Saguaro National Park. Many other kinds of cactus, including barrel cactus, cholla cactus, and prickly pear, are also abundant in the park. One endangered animal, the Lesser Long-nosed Bat, lives in the park part of the year during its migration, together with one threatened species, the Mexican Spotted Owl. While Saguaro National Park is a beautiful place to study desert ecology, the Fraternal Order of Police named it one of the Top 10 most dangerous parks in the country. They stated that Saguaro National Park is “home to body dumping, smuggling and poaching after rangers go home at night.” Visitors should be on the lookout for arson, vandalism, theft of cactus, poaching, dumping of debris, marijuana cultivation, and drug labs. But you won’t find this alert on the National Park Service website. Colonel Ronald Adler, commandant for the United States Civil Defense Association of Arizona, says ” If some of these government agencies continue to encourage Americans to come and visit their parks, monuments, national forests, and other lands on or within a 100 miles of the U.S. Mexican border, and this administration does not come through with U.S. army troops on our border with Mexico, unsuspecting Americans may meet a violent death or [be] violently maimed by armed smugglers and/or terrorists who are illegally infiltrating American sovereign lands.”

6. Sonoran Desert National Monument – The Sonoran Desert is the most biologically diverse of the North American deserts, and the Sonoran Desert National Monument protects but a small portion of the Sonoran Desert. Straddling I-8 between Gila Bend and Casa Grande, the Monument lies just north of the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation which sits on the U.S.-Mexico border. The southern edge of the Monument is about 60 miles from the Mexican border, while the northern boundary is only 80 miles south of Phoenix. This Monument spans 478,000 acres and is home to several federally-listed endangered species, three congressionally designated wilderness areas, as well as significant archeological and historic sites. Created by Presidential proclamation on January 17, 2001, President Clinton wrote a description of the protected area: “The Sonoran Desert National Monument is a magnificent example of untrammeled Sonoran desert landscape. The area encompasses a functioning desert ecosystem with an extraordinary array of biological, scientific, and historic resources. The monument’s biological resources include a spectacular diversity of plant and animal species. The monument also contains many significant archaeological and historic sites, including rock art sites, lithic quarries, and scattered artifacts.” This park is popular among families since it’s not too far from the Phoenix metro area, but it has also become a favorite pathway for Mexican smugglers making their way into Phoenix and other parts of our nation. The chief ranger of the Sonoran Desert National Monument recommended that the monument be closed to the public because of what he believed to be a safety threat posed by drug smugglers moving through the monument. Although his request was denied, the Bureau of Land Management did place signs in the area warning the public against travel in portions of the monument because of potential encounters with armed criminals and smugglers. In 2010, three years after the chief ranger tried to get permission to close the monument, an Arizona deputy sheriff was wounded in the area, two suspected drug smugglers were shot by rival drug smugglers, and an American citizen became the victim of an attempted car-jacking.

7. Ironwood Forest National Monument – Ironwood Forest National Monument takes its name from one of the longest living trees in the Sonoran Desert. The 129,000-acre federal parkland is maintained by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Ironwood Forest National Monument is situated more than 60 miles north of the Mexican border, adjacent to the northeast boundary of the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation, yet it shares many of the problems of federal lands right on the border. Visitors are warned to be mindful because the monument is a travel corridor for illegal immigrants traveling from Mexico. One BLM officer was nearly run over by illegal aliens in vehicles, and there have been other assaults on officers. The monument’s vulnerable ecosystem with over 600 animal and plant species – some of them endangered – has also been damaged by illegal border traffic. According to Bureau officials, smugglers and other illegal aliens in route from Mexico have established more than 50 illegal roads through the monument. In addition, the illegal aliens and smugglers have abandoned about 600 vehicles each year and leave behind waste that creates biohazards. Besides potential encounters with illegal users of public land, other hazards include poisonous snakes and africanized bees.

8. San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area – The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (NCA) contains nearly 57,000 acres of public land in Cochise County east of Sierra Vista between the international border and St. David, Arizona. The riparian area, where some 40 miles of the upper San Pedro River meanders, was designated by Congress as a Riparian National Conservation Area on November 18, 1988. The primary purpose for the special designation is to protect and enhance the desert riparian ecosystem, a rare remnant of what was once an extensive network of similar riparian systems throughout the American Southwest. One of the most important riparian areas in the United States, the San Pedro River runs through the Chihuahuan Desert and the Sonoran Desert in southeastern Arizona. The river’s stretch is home to 84 species of mammals, 14 species of fish, 41 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 100 species of breeding birds. It also provides invaluable habitat for 250 species of migrant and wintering birds and contains archaeological sites representing the remains of human occupation from 13,000 years ago. Today, the region is a popular travel corridor for illegal immigrants coming from Mexico.

9. Coronado National Forest / Coronado National Memorial – “Welcome to Coronado National Forest,” a sign reads.” Another warns, “Travel Caution: Smuggling and Illegal Immigration may be encountered in this area.” On July 30, 2009, captured on film the largest single group of illegal aliens in its ten months online. They looked tired, having just come up a steep climb through the Coronado National Forest. Questions raised in “Hidden Cameras” as to whether Coronado National Forest is going to suffer the same immense environmental damage as Organ Pipe due to illegal smuggling are well-founded. In addition, black bears seem to be losing their fear of humans. Food and garbage left behind by illegal immigrants is tempting bears to linger in the area. Visitors should be aware that drug smuggling routes also pass through the Coronado National Forest. For several years, the U.S. Forest Service has reported numerous accounts of encounters with heavily armed drug dealers. In 2007, firefighters battling wildfires in the Coronado National Forest had to be accompanied by police officers. The 4,750-acre Coronado National Memorial is located in the Coronado National Forest on the U.S.-Mexico border, in the far southeastern corner of Arizona. The chief ranger of the Coronado National Memorial expressed safety concerns regarding the level of cross-border illegal traffic within the memorial and the potential threat to visitors and employees. He posted signs to warn the public about illegal cross-border activity. However, officials from the Department of Interior’s National Park Service in charge of the Coronado National Memorial asked him to remove the warning signs because of political sensitivities. These signs were reposted on forest land that could not be seen from the highway.

10. Empire-Cienega National Conservation Area – Once facing an uncertain future that would have included housing and commercial development, today more than 45,000 acres of grasslands and woodlands in Arizona’s Pima and Santa Cruz counties are protected as a National Conservation Area. The region’s rolling grasslands, oak-studded hills that connect several “sky island” mountain ranges, and lush riparian corridors are irresistible to both people and wildlife. Cienega Creek, with its perennial flow and lush riparian corridor, forms the lifeblood of the NCA and supports a diverse plant and animal community. Thanks to the efforts of local governments, elected officials and the public, the Empire and Cienega ranches, along with portions of the adjacent Rose Tree and Vera Earl ranches, are now under public ownership and managed by Bureau of Land Management (BLM) which is “dedicated to preserving the historic buildings and surrounding landscapes for future generations to use and enjoy.” Too bad the area has become a travel corridor for illegal immigrants coming from Mexico.

Honorable Mention – The Tohono O’odham Nation is also being devastated by the consequences of illegal immigration and drug runners. The main Tohono O’odham reservation, formerly known as the Papago Indian Reservation, extends from southern Maricopa County to the international border southwest of Tucson, adjacent to Organ Pipe National Monument. Baboquivari Peak and Kitt Peak National Observatory are located within the boundaries of the reservation. Tohono O’odham police investigate an average of 70 deaths a year of illegal immigrants that die on their land from exposure, injury, and about 3% are murdered by other illegal aliens. Customs and Border Protection data show that about 10% of the border crossers have criminal histories, which means there are about 40-50 felons entering the Tohono O’odham Nation on a daily basis, or about 1500 per month. The southern side is rural desert with little if any law enforcement presence, so it’s used as a staging area to smuggle drugs and illegal immigrants. Because of the vehicle barriers they can no longer drive across the international border, so they steal vehicles from Arizona residents and then drive the stolen vehicles to sites on the Tohono O’odham Nation where the drugs and/or human cargo are stored or waiting. According to the Tohono O’odham Nation Police Department, it removed close to 4,500 abandoned vehicles in 2002 and over 7,000 such vehicles in 2003. According to the Tohono O’odham Nation, illegal immigrants have left behind an estimated 4 million pounds of trash each year as they cross over their lands. “All of this activity affects the quality of life of our members. Our children are routinely exposed to the drugs, violence and death….The Tohono O’odham Nation is in the midst of this crisis and our way of life and culture and traditions are changing every day. This crime and violence doesn’t end on the Tohono O’odham Nation.” (From the Testimony of Chairman Ned Norris, Jr., Tohono O’odham Nation, April 20, 2009)

<<< Return to Arizona’s Top Ten


One Response to Top Ten: Endangered Places

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *