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Arizona Park "Most Dangerous" in U.S.

Tom Clynes
for National Geographic News
January 13, 2003
 
The park rangers at Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument wear
camouflage, carry assault rifles, and chase drug smugglers through the
blazing desert. They're at the front lines of a violent border
war—and they're losing.

In August, a park ranger, 28-year-old Kris Eggle, was killed while helping Border Patrol agents catch two men suspected by Mexican officials in a drug-related quadruple murder. The men had driven a stolen SUV through one of many holes in the fence that separates the park from the Mexican state of Sonora.

Eggle grew up in northern Michigan on his family's 130-year-old farm and was a track star, an Eagle Scout, and his high school's valedictorian. The death of this quintessential all-American boy turned ranger focused attention on how dangerous the park ranger's job has become, and how poorly the tradition-bound Park Service has adapted to meet 21st-century circumstances. Critics say rangers are under-trained, under-staffed, and under-equipped to deal with their new front-line role in the wars on drugs and illegal immigration. Across the nation, park rangers are assaulted more often than any other federal law enforcement officers.


Rangers say it was only a matter of time before tragedy struck in one of the five national parks and monuments along the U.S.-Mexican border, where shoot-outs occur with alarming frequency. Some of these problems are unique to the border-region parks, but critics say that others—declining budgets, manpower shortages, and long-festering crises in management and identity—have put all rangers and the park-going public in harm's way, and accelerated the destruction of America's natural heritage. Meanwhile, a highly critical Interior Department report says that the department's law enforcement program is in disarray, and that the Park Service suffers from extreme organizational dysfunction.

Smuggling People and Drugs

Though Organ Pipe is a backwater in the National Park system, it almost certainly leads the Park Service in number of backcountry stays. On any given night, rangers estimate, up to 1,000 people are inside the park. Nearly all of them have entered illegally across the park's 31-mile (50-kilometer) southern boundary, which also happens to be the dividing line between two nations—one with jobs, the other with people who need them.

Many cross the border with expectations of quicker profits: Last year, Organ Pipe rangers seized some 13,000 pounds (4,850 kilograms) of marijuana, one-third of the total seized in all national parks and monuments combined.

In the park's rugged backcountry, migrants and smugglers have cut hundreds of new trails, trampled plants, and strewn water jugs and other garbage through the once-pristine desert. They have disrupted the habitat of the park's population of endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelope, a shy and reclusive species already gravely stressed by a drought.

On many mornings, rangers track marijuana smugglers in 116-degree-Farenheit (47-degree-Celsius) heat, looking more like G.I. Joe than Smokey the Bear in their full-camouflage and weaponry. It's a dangerous cat-and-mouse game that often includes high-speed chases, shoot-outs, and rangers put in harm's way by unworkable policies set thousands of miles away.

Now that American immigration policy has pushed the wars on drugs and immigration into the desert wilderness, it has suddenly become the ranger's job to hold the line. Before Eggle's death, Organ Pipes former chief ranger, Dale Thompson, realized that his rangers were outmanned and outgunned by the drug traffickers, with their growing infrastructure of communications and surveillance systems, automatic weapons, and even support from elements in the Mexican police and military. He called for reinforcements, but his requests for more resources got little more than sympathy in Washington. Budgets were frozen, and in the wake of September 11, trained rangers were being siphoned off by other federal law-enforcement agencies, who could pay more.

"Our budget isn't considered part of homeland defense, so it wasn't a priority," Thompson said, as he drove past the 20-foot (6-meter) hole in the border fence that Eggle's killer drove through. "But how long will it be until someone figures out that you could easily drive a semi-truck with a nuclear device through here?"

Repairs to the existing fence have been an exercise in futility, as mended segments are often torn down within hours. Thompson had concrete barriers installed across popular smuggling routes, but the smugglers either drove around them, damaging more terrain, or cut the cables and towed them aside.

"It's like predator-prey co-evolution," said Peter Rowlands, the park's chief of natural and cultural resources. "We come up with a measure, they come up with a countermeasure."

Training Deemed Inadequate

Traditionally, a ranger is expected to be a master of many trades. But park rangers enforce a broader range of laws than almost any other law-enforcement agency in the country—game laws, drug laws, health codes, the entire gamut of people crimes. In a place like Organ Pipe, they become de facto DEA, Customs Service, and Border Patrol agents.

The nature of park policing has changed, but critics say that ranger training has not kept up. Eggle had only been out of the academy for a couple of months, and unlike Customs Service or Border Patrol officers, he wasn't given the advantage of intensive field training or mentoring with an experienced officer.

Eggle's father, who was an infantry commander in Vietnam, says it all sounds wrenchingly familiar: the misguided policies, the muddled objectives, the government that sends its soldiers out without the resources to do their jobs.

"In Vietnam I faced political constraints that cost me a lot of young guys," Bob Eggle said. "My son also went into combat for his country—and because of politics he lost his life."

Eggle's parents say Kris should have been backed up by the military or trained in SWAT or special operations tactics, given the warlike conditions he faced every day.

In the wake of Eggle's death and the Interior Department report, Park Service officials say they are considering an array of changes aimed at protecting rangers and park visitors.

In July, Interior Secretary Gale Norton hired Larry Parkinson, a former FBI assistant director, as a deputy assistant secretary to shape law enforcement across the department. National Park Service Director Fran Mainella is planning to streamline the chain of command and patch holes in the ranger's ranks that she said are nearing critical proportions.

This month, the Park Service said it plans to construct an anti-vehicle barrier along the border in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which was named the most dangerous park in the nation by the National Park Rangers Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police.

The department also is preparing to ask Congress for more money to hire law enforcement officers, and revamp training. Under a proposed program, a graduating ranger would be assigned to a field training officer for a period of several months before being permanently assigned as a law-enforcement ranger. Under the new plan, rangers would also become more specialized: law-enforcement rangers would concentrate on crime, while interpretation and resource management rangers would perform more traditional duties.

Kris Eggle's mother, Bonnie Eggle, said that if Congress had answered earlier pleas for more rangers and resources, and a stronger border, her son might still be alive.

The Park Service's new deputy director, Donald Murphy, acknowledges that much of the criticism of park service policies is on target.

"We're understaffed, our training is substandard, and we haven't developed an understanding, among management and the general public, of what today's park ranger does. This is a wonderfully complex and rewarding job. Yes, park rangers are the good guys in the Smokey Bear hats who lead hikes and campfire talks. But they also risk their lives on a daily basis."

Read National Park War Zone, Tom Clynes's feature-length article on Organ Pipe National Monument and the crisis facing the U.S. National Park Service in the February 2003 issue of National Geographic Adventure magazine. Preview ››
 

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