Pubdate: Thu, 13 Jun 2002
Source: Pueblo Chieftain (CO)
Copyright: 2002 The Star-Journal Publishing Corp.
Author: Julie Watson, Associated Press
Bookmark: (Environment)


EL PINACATE BIOSPHERE RESERVE, Mexico - Drug traffickers scar volcanic 
desert with illicit runways, while law enforcement officials chase them 
through once-tranquil parks.

Thousands of migrants traipse across delicate back-country areas - sending 
campers fleeing to ranger stations, fearful of crowds trekking by their 
tents in the night.

Wilderness areas on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border are taking a 
beating from an onslaught of migrants, drug traffickers and law enforcement 
officials, a new study says. Some national treasures in both countries have 
been lost forever.

Few parks have taken a greater toll than the U.N.-designated biosphere 
reserve El Pinacate and Arizona's adjoining Organ Pipe Cactus National 
Monument. Last year, officials caught 200,000 migrants and 700,000 pounds 
of drugs in Organ Pipe alone.

Last month, Pinacate and Organ Pipe officials completed the border's first 
environmental impact studies of illegal activities. The findings were 
eye-opening: It could take 20 years to recover from the damage, while some 
archaeological sites are gone forever.

"Organ Pipe National Monument is becoming Organ Pipe National Catastrophe," 
said Randall Rasmussen, program manager of the nonprofit National Parks 
Conservation Association.

On the Mexican side, migrants and drug traffic hit just as Pinacate gained 
federal protection status for its 1.9 million acres in 1993.

Officials estimate smugglers drove 5,000 cars through protected wilderness 
last year alone. Towering saguaro cacti, hundreds of years old, have been 
carved by migrants.

People trampling prehistoric stone sleeping circles - created 10,000 years 
ago by Amerindians on their salt trail - have eroded them away.

The area's harsh conditions have taken the lives of migrants, who flooded 
the region after the Border Patrol increased its presence along more 
populated spots in 1993. Last year, eight bodies were found in Organ Pipe 
and 14 other people passed through the park before dying in neighboring 
Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.

In Pinacate, Mexican soldiers have destroyed archaeological areas - 
including one with a 10,000-year-old drawing on it - mistaking them for 
illicit runways, Pinacate Park Director Carlos Castillo said.

In addition, the army has dug deep trenches to destroy 19 clandestine 
airstrips - marring hundreds of acres of volcanic desert that took 4 
million years to form. The soldiers' markings could remain for another 100 

Both parks are home to rare animals. The cactus pygmy owl has abandoned one 
of its few nesting areas in Organ Pipe since smuggling took off in the area.

The endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelope population has shrunk by 68 
animals since 1993. Mexico has an estimated 346 pronghorn antelopes, while 
140 remain in the United States, according to the last census.

U.S. Border Patrol traffic can disturb the animals, said Bill Wellman, 
director of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

Environmentalists also fear a barbed-wire fence along the border may be 
dividing the gene pool, further threatening the species already under 
stress from a decade-old drought. They plan to remove the barbs from the 
wire this year to allow the animals to cross.

But that may not be enough.

"With all this illegal activity and the law enforcement to stop it putting 
another stress on them, we may start losing more animals," Wellman said.

Organ Pipe administrators need funding to fence sensitive areas of the 
330,690-acre park, let migrants know they are crossing national parks and 
add more rangers to keep smugglers away.

In Pinacate, officials are working with the army to find alternate ways to 
destroy airstrips and minimize the damage left by the drug traffickers.

But it's not easy. Smugglers have threatened rangers in both parks, and law 
enforcement officials often have shrugged off their complaints in the face 
of more immediate security concerns.

"We don't have the answers, and it's probably beyond us," Wellman said. 
"But what we want to do is make this park uncomfortable for smugglers so 
they'll go someplace else."

Then, Wellman said, officials hope to "get things back as close as we can 
to their natural conditions" in areas considered only a few years ago to be 
largely untouched by humans.
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MAP posted-by: Terry Liittschwager