About 2.5 hours from Tucson, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument isn’t terribly easy to get to but definitely worth the drive. March and April are great months to be here as all around you the desert is blooming.
“The earth laughs in flowers.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
In 1937 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared Organ Pipe a national monument as a showcase for the Sonoran Desert and it’s many plants and animals including the Organ Pipe Cactus rarely found in the United States. While common in Mexico, this monument protects the bulk of the Organ Pipe’s limited range in the United States.
In 1976, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated the monument as a biosphere reserve, one of only about 500 in more than 100 countries. This designation has attracted scientists from around the world to conduct studies on this intact ecosystem.
The organ pipe cactus is a tropical plant, and was originally only found in the tropics of Central America, where the warm, wet climate helped the sensitive plant thrive. When the last Ice Age ended, the global climate warmed and the cactus slowly began migrating farther north, arriving in North America 3,500 years ago.
Over the last 200 years, the temperature of the earth has increased at an unparalleled rate. While the concept of climate change is controversial, two facts are clear; temperatures have increased faster than ever recorded, and humans are having a direct impact on the earth’s climate. Already, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument has observed changes in climate including altered monsoon seasons, less winter moisture, and longer periods of drought. What this means for the future of the plants and animals in this area, and all over the world for that matter, is unknown.
When I visited the monument in late March the desert was in bloom. It is a marvelous time to see this area dotted with colors only found in the spring. The desert is beautiful most anytime of year but certainly spring is a magical time.
“People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.” ― Iris Murdoch
The more recent history of the monument is more violent and troubling. In the 1990s, border-security crackdowns in urban areas sent human and drug traffickers into the outback seeking new routes from Mexico to the United States. The remote monument became a thoroughfare for illegal activity, culminating in 2002 when Ranger Kris Eggle was shot and killed while chasing a cartel hit squad, prompting park officials to close nearly 70 percent of what was deemed America’s “most dangerous national park” in 2003.
Since then, numerous security measures have been implemented. Miles of vehicle barriers were installed on the border, along with surveillance towers and pedestrian fences. More law-enforcement rangers were added to the monument’s staff and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection dramatically beefed up its presence.
In September 2015, all of Organ Pipe’s 516 square miles were reopened to hikers, campers, 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. We’re educating visitors and they can make their own decisions about whether they feel comfortable (going into the backcountry).”
The location and unprecedented level of border-related activity has made managing the Organ Pipe Cactus wilderness challenging and the effects of these activities are visible throughout the monument. The Park Service has documented thousands of miles of unauthorized roads and trails, trash, graffiti, abandoned vehicles, vandalism, invasive plants and animals, altered ecological processes and degraded habitats.
Managing such a vast conservation area on the border frequently requires federal agencies to work together to balance the needs of both national security and wilderness. In general the designation of wilderness means no roads or vehicles but with the challenges of border protection this becomes nearly impossible. A 2006 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) among the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Interior and Homeland Security authorizes border enforcement agents to drive off-road in wilderness under exigent or emergency circumstances that involve threats to human health and safety. Since the MOU took effect, monitoring data have shown that off-road-vehicle impacts have increased and today the agencies generally agree that there are opportunities for improvement.
I attended an interpretive program titled “The International Border” at the Gachado Line Camp located in the park on the border of Mexico. It was interesting to hear about the history of land ownership and border protection. The Ranger wrapped up the talk by reading Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall”. Published in 1914 with all the political talk about building a wall the poem seems especially appropriate today.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.”
There seems to have been many interpretations of Frost’s words but most seem to agree his meaning was that boundaries are what alienate us from each other. In the case of the border wall I have to agree.
“Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every new year find you a better man.” Benjamin Franklin