How state, national parks near border became safe for visitors again

A view of the border fence cutting across the landscape from the Coronado National Memorial
A view of the border fence cutting across the landscape from the Coronado National Memorial. (Photos by Nicholas Cada/Arizona Sonora News)

Caution: “Smuggling and illegal immigration may be encountered in this area.”

Visitors to state and national parks, monuments and memorials in Southern Arizona have undoubtedly seen these signs posted along popular hiking trails. The sites near the Mexico border are great spots to find hiking, bird watching and camping, but also provide the perfect place for undocumented immigrants and drug smugglers to cross into the U.S.

However, visitors are unlikely to see any illegal border activity. One reason: Border Patrol now has an operating base inside the Coronado National Memorial in Sierra Vista, which has led to more officers being assigned to the park to help reduce illegal border activity.

“Visitors don’t often see it because (immigrants) try to avoid established trails and they usually travel by night,” said Christopher Bentley, park ranger at the Coronado National Memorial near Sierra Vista, which is only open during daylight hours.

According to Bentley, safety has improved drastically since 2003, when Coronado was named one of 10 deadliest U.S. parks by the Fraternal Order Police’s park ranger association.

Border Patrol vehicles stationed at the top of Coronado Peak.
Border Patrol vehicles stationed at the top of Coronado Peak.

Another safer area includes Organ Pipe National Monument, which is west of the Tohono O’odham Nation in western Pima County. The 517 square-mile park stretches almost 30 miles across the Mexico border and was created in 1937 to preserve a pristine example of Sonoran Desert habitat.

The monument — which boasts of hundreds of miles of scenic drives, dozens of miles of hiking grounds, and campgrounds — is home to many endangered Sonoran animals.

Smuggling and illegal border crossing became such a problem by 2003 that most sections of Organ Pipe were closed off to the public. That year, it also was named one of 10 deadliest national parks.

Illegal border crossers and drug smuggling not only threaten the safety of visitors to the park, but they also damaged the health and safety of these unique ecosystems.

“Our job is preservation of land, we must keep watch for man-made trails that can erode and degrade the environment,” Bentley said.

In 2014, Organ Pipe reopened all areas of the monument to the public, with more than 210,000 people visiting the park that year.

Organ Pipe has also seen a reduction in border activity due to a higher presence of Border Patrol officers and overall decreasing trends in illegal border activity.

In 2013, an assault took place at the Chiricahua National Monument, 30 miles south of Willcox. National Parks Service employee Karen Gonzales was left for dead in a bathroom before her NPS truck was stolen. Suspect Gil Gaxiola, an undocumented immigrant, was arrested by Border Patrol later that month in Douglas and is awaiting trial, which is slated for September.

Such assaults, however, have become rarer since the mid-2000s, when illegal border crossings reached record numbers, Bentley said.

Overlooking the Mexico border from Coronado Peak. Photo by Nicholas Cada
Overlooking the Mexico border from Coronado Peak.

“People are more interested in the border than they are scared of it,” he said. “Often they’re asking how far is the border, or if they can see it from the park.”

“The safety concerns about the border have become a little inflated,” Bentley added.

All the U.S. parks near the border have seen an increase in visitation over the last few years, he said.

“I just hope we can ease some people’s anxieties about the border,” Bentley said. “The park is a safe place to be and it’s a beautiful spot with a unique ecology.”

Nicholas Cada is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at ncada@email.arizona.edu.

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