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.

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