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9OYS Border Watch: Most dangerous national park

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Photo: Video by kgun9.com

9OYS Border Watch: Most dangerous national park

CREATED May 9, 2012

Reporter:  Jessica Chapin

ORGAN PIPE NATL. MONUMENT, Ariz. (KGUN9- TV) - It's been called the most dangerous national park.  Set deep in a remote area of the Sonoran desert, there's not doubt the animals and plants can be unfriendly, and the scorching summer temperatures can be deadly.  But, that's not the reason the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument has worn the label for the past 10 years.

The park lies on the Mexican-American border, and while there are several open trails and campgrounds, some of the parts of the park are only accessible with an escort.  9 On Your Side reporter Jessica Chapin toured Quitoboquito, a pond and former Western town about an hour drive into a restricted area.

During the bumpy drive, visitors see signs of the border activity that happens every day.  Plastic bags and empty water jugs strewn across the desert landscape reveal how many illegal immigrants try to make the trip North on a regular basis.

They're the reason the park has held that unwanted title, and the reason the Quitoboquito tour comes with armed rangers who stay close but out of sight.  Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument spokesperson Sue Walter says they haven't had any violent incidents since park ranger Kris Eggle was killed there in 2002 during a cross-border chase. 

One of the reasons migrants target the particular stretch of land is because of a different kind of migration.  The endangered Pronghorn, a type of antelope, lives on the land between the U.S and Mexico.  A 30-mile stretch of vehicle barrier allows them to cross and keeps cars at bay, but doesn't stop pedestrians from going through unnoticed at times.

"They'll actually flag people down and they'll sit on the side waiting for Border Patrol to pick them up.  And we do have them come in the park and we've actually had some give themselves up here at the visitor's center, open the door ask for the police and sit outside on the bench and wait," said Walter, "They're not armed, they're just desperate for somebody to come help them."

The $13-million vehicle barrier, along with more agents, rangers and enhanced technology are all improvements the park has welcomed over the past 10 years.  They're reasons Walter says she feels the park doesn't deserve its reputation.

9 On Your Side checked with park visitors to get their perspective.

Ajo resident and frequent visitor Doug Prouty says he does feel safe.

"It's kind of sad though that we have to have that kind of security just to be safe," he said, adding that the whole area is misunderstood.

"The state of Arizona's been vilified so much and it's a great state in fact I think it's one of the best states in the Union and this area is just beautiful," he said, "It's a wonderful area to be in."

Other visitors are slightly put off, like Jane Cramer and the rest of her family from Oregon.

"It's harsh.  We're not used to a militarized state with a lot of police I mean I know they're doing their job but it's scary," she said, "We don't see that.  We never see anything like it."

However, despite the different Cramer pointed out between the Mexican and Canadian borders, their family visits every year and feels safe.

"I don't think you're unsafe here," she said, "I feel very safe."

A New Beginning:

National park officials assess Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument safety about four times a year, reconsidering closed and open areas.  For the first time in a decade, they will re-open a closed portion of the park, just after celebrating their 75th anniversary.

Walter describes the section as, "a road-less wilderness area.  So you'll get a beautiful feel for that solitude."

The section will also increase the park's open access by about 10 percent.  The move was approved in March but because of the Pronghorn mating season it is set to open July 16.

Walter credits their efforts to increase rangers, fencing and patrols in that area for the expansion. 

"Things have changed," she said, "We're seeing the outcome of all that effort."

And, she hopes the monument's reputation can change too.

For more information or to plan your next visit to the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, click here.