January to mark Organ Pipe’s first tours of entire park since 2003

After half the land at Organ Pipe National Monument remained closed since 2003 due to safety concerns, February marks the first tour season to feature all of the park's land. (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service)
After half the land at Organ Pipe National Monument remained closed since 2003 due to safety concerns, February marks the first tour season to feature all of the park’s land. (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.)

The entirety of Organ Pipe National Monument’s grounds opened in September, making the park’s next tour season in January the first that will cover all the grounds since the park closed nearly half its acreage in 2003.

The opening comes 12 years after the death of Ranger Kris Eggle, who was killed at the park in August 2002 while pursuing members of a drug cartel. Organ Pipe National Monument’s Visitor Center now serves as Eggle’s namesake.

Officials closed much of the park’s grounds the following year, and the U.S. Park Rangers Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police dubbed the park “the most dangerous national park” in 2002 and 2003.

Officials at the park attribute the reopening to an increase in staff, with 20 rangers now working in the park from the previous five. U.S. Border Patrol presence has also increased drastically, from 25 agents to 500 working at the Ajo station, whose jurisdiction includes the park.

Peter Bidegain, a spokesman for the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, said Border Patrol growth at the park goes as far back as 9/11, when the agency was moved to the Department of Homeland Security from Immigration and Naturalization Services.

“The Border Patrol has grown across the nation over the last 10 years,” Bidegain said. “The Ajo station was just part of that natural growth with the Border Patrol.”

Increases since 2004, Bidegain added, have led to the 500 that now occupy the park.

More than a decade later and following the openings, park officials still question how dangerous the park was to begin with.

“We never felt we were the most dangerous national park,” said Meri Sias, acting chief ranger at Organ Pipe National Monument. “Shootings happen in cities and parks every day, so we’re not sure why Organ Pipe was given that designation.”

In addition to the staffing increases, the barbed-wire fence that once ran between the border of Mexico and the United States has since been replaced with 30 miles of vehicle barrier fence and 5.2 miles of pedestrian fence, said Sue Walter, the park’s public information officer.

Though much of the fence remains crossable on foot, the office’s responsibility, Walter added, is protecting the natural resources, which includes allowing animals to cross the border freely.

Bidegain added that although the primary focus for agents patrolling the park is enforcing the border, protecting the wildlife is also a priority.

“You have a national park that has a really unique biology out there and it’s something we want to protect as a nation,” Bidegain said. “The important thing for us is to continue to protect the environment while we’re going through our law enforcement activities.”

Bidegain added that both park rangers and agents work to maintain efficient communication about campers in the park and Border Patrol presence to do both jobs efficiently.

Walter said it was impossible to tell how many people would show up for tours in February. With ranger and agent presence now at an all-time high, she added that some of the responsibility comes down to the visitors.

“We’re doing what we can to make sure visitors are safe,” she said. “We’re giving them the best information we can to make their own decisions.”

 


Kyle Mittan is a reporter at Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Contact him at kyle.mittan@gmail.com.

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