Trampled wilderness Illegal immigrants, drug traffickers destroying border parks - Brownsville Herald: News

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Trampled wilderness Illegal immigrants, drug traffickers destroying border parks

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Posted: Sunday, June 16, 2002 12:00 am

By JULIE WATSON

The Associated Press

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 backcountry 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 Arizonas 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 borders 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 with the names of Mexican villages.

People trampling prehistoric stone sleeping circles created 10,000 years ago

by Amerindians on their salt trail have eroded them away.

On a recent afternoon in Organ Pipe, discarded water bottles, backpacks, hot

sauce containers and Spanish-language comic books littered the ground around a

sprawling Ironwood tree, estimated to be 1,000 years old.

A few miles away, sitting along U.S. Highway 85, Paolo Solis and his friend

gave up and flagged down the Border Patrol after spending 12 hours walking in

100-degree heat. They were surrounded by four water jugs only a swallow

remained.

We didnt know this was a national park, the 31-year-old farm worker from

Ciudad Obregon said. We just heard this was the easiest place to cross, but

its not. You suffer a lot. Thank God we didnt run out of water.

The areas 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 years.

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 might 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 might 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 its 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 dont have the answers, and its probably beyond us, Wellman said. But

what we want to do is make this park uncomfortable for smugglers so theyll 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.

On the Net:

Pinacate Biosphere Reserve, http://www.puerto-penasco.com/pinacate.html

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, http://www.nps.gov/orpi/index.htm

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