Pubdate: Tue, 19 Jun 2001
Source: Christian Science Monitor (US)
Copyright: 2001 The Christian Science Publishing Society
Author: Tim Vanderpool


Nation's 'Most Dangerous' Park: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Ariz.

Dale Thompson bounces along the desert terrain in his Dodge SUV, moving 
past the park's signature Roman-column cactuses. As he approaches the 
southern edge of the park, which borders Mexico, he suddenly stops and 
looks at a footprint in the sand.

Later, he pulls over to inspect a freshly rutted path. "Haven't seen that 
one before," he says, climbing back into his truck, resigned.

While rangers at most national parks spend their time checking campgrounds 
and the latest tourist-animal encounter, many of the green-uniformed 
workers here are on the lookout for smuggling routes.

The reason: Illegal immigration and drug trafficking are turning this 
desert wilderness into the equivalent of a war zone. Indeed, Organ Pipe's 
beleaguered rangers - along with a mishmash of other local, state, and 
federal authorities - now regularly spend two-thirds of their time policing 

Organ Pipe, in fact, was recently labeled the most dangerous unit in the 
national park system. Each day, some 1,000 illegal immigrants pass through 
the park, which borders Mexico for 31 miles. Backpackers routinely smuggle 
60-pound marijuana cargoes: Last year alone, authorities seized 60,000 to 
80,000 pounds of the illicit substance.

"And we only touch the surface of what goes on," says Mr. Thompson.

Many, however, say the monument's problems go far beyond its geography and 
is shared by most national parks across the country: The preserves have a 
severe shortage of law-enforcement manpower, with little budgetary relief 
on the horizon.

Thompson doesn't question the conclusions of the report, which was compiled 
for the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) by polling rangers across the 
country. "There is the potential for visitors to get hurt," he says. 
Campgrounds are sometimes targeted by cross-border thieves, and "smugglers 
come down these roads at 60 to 70 miles an hour. In April, one of our 
agents was nearly injured when a vehicle headed for Mexico sideswiped his 
vehicle and ripped the door off its hinges."

Thompson says rangers constantly block off new smuggling roads, but they 
don't waste time correcting the damage. Environmental problems have also 
cropped up as more and more transients have trampled the desert terrain.

Organ Pipe, says the FOP report, has become "so dangerous the Park Service 
uses it as a training ground for tactical operations." This training 
includes the use of body armor, state-of-the-art night goggles, motion 
detectors, and M-16 rifles.

Organ Pipe isn't the only Arizona park with a lot to handle. Three others - 
Grand Canyon, Saguaro, and Lake Mead - are included on the FOP's 10 most 
dangerous list. Furthermore, Texas' Big Bend National Park, which is also 
on the border, trails Organ Pipe only slightly.

While violent crime in national parks has actually decreased overall 
(homicides fell from 13 in 1995 to nine in 1999), those numbers don't 
accurately reflect hotspots like Organ Pipe.

"The numbers are quite low from a national perspective," says Robert 
Stinson, district ranger for Saguaro's western unit. "But we're talking 
about a lot of parks that are isolated and may only have one or two things 
happening for the entire year. Then you take others that are up against 
this stuff quite a bit, like me and Dale Thompson."

According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the number 
of commissioned park rangers fell by 9.3 percent in the latter half of the 
1990s. Meanwhile, funding for park law enforcement will fall from $94 
million this year to $90 million in 2002.

At Organ Pipe, Thompson says his current $2.2 million budget and staff of 
six to eight rangers "could be doubled without looking back."

Randall Kendrick, executive director of the Park Rangers Lodge, calls the 
lack of manpower a case of misplaced priorities. "In national parks, 
professional staffs have just mushroomed in the last 15 years," he says, 
"whereas the number of maintenance people and rangers have, if not 
declined, at least remained static."

President Bush's recently unveiled "National Parks Legacy Project" doesn't 
appear to ameliorate the situation. The plan would address a $5 billion 
park maintenance backlog, but it pledges no new funds for law enforcement.

Arizona Rep. Jim Kolbe, a Republican who sits on the House Interior 
Subcommittee, says Congress recognizes the safety needs of parks like Organ 
Pipe. He's helping indirectly with a 10 percent funding increase for 
visitors services. "As I understand it, law enforcement is a subactivity of 
visitors services," he says. "And the [Park Service] could choose to tell 
Congress they need to allocate more of that to the law-enforcement part of 
visitors services. More manpower is what's needed."

That was also the conclusion of a review several years ago by the 
International Association of Chiefs of Police. "The report recommended 
1,295 new rangers," says Dennis Burnett, acting Park Service chief ranger.

Today, that report gathers dust. "No new hirings have taken place," Mr. 
Burnett says. Meanwhile, a large "bubble" of current rangers are hitting 
retirement age within five years - including Thompson.

The Park Service mission, he says, is to protect public lands. "But being 
on the border makes this an interesting resource to protect with a small 
staff and tight funding. There is a crisis down here, and it's going to 
take future Americans' heritage away from them."
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