On the Edge of Disaster 

With minimal funding and staff, park rangers grapple with drug traffic and illegal immigrants while striving to protect the ecology.

The death of a park ranger at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument has focused attention on how dangerous the job of a ranger has become. Even before 28-year-old Kris Eggle was shot to death Friday, apparently by a fugitive from Mexico, border park rangers were keenly aware of the risks in their jobs.

Dale Thompson, chief ranger of the 330,000-acre Organ Pipe monument on the Arizona-Mexico border, spends more time chasing down drug smugglers and other miscreants than counting wildflowers or Sonoran pronghorns. For two years running, his federal turf has been named the most dangerous park in the United States by the Fraternal Order of Police Park Ranger Lodge.

Thompson wasn't surprised at this dubious distinction. "Last year we seized 13,000 pounds of marijuana in the park," he says. "And we've already seized 9,500 so far this year. Every year we go up about a third or more."

That's certainly a different take on the greening of America--or America's national parks.

But even as border preserves face rampant crime and unrelenting destruction, funding for Park Service rangers dropped from $94 million last year to a current $90 million. And instead of growing, the number of commissioned park rangers actually fell in the latter 1990s by 9.3 percent, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

"Right now, we have about 1,350 agents nationwide," says Dennis Burnett, chief Park Service law enforcement administrator in Washington, D.C. "That's down 100 from where we were at this time last year, and down from a high of around 2,245 about 12 years ago."

As a result, overwhelmed Southwest rangers must contend with hundreds of illegal trails crisscrossing their parks, trampling delicate plants and frightening wildlife. Drug smugglers careen down their roads, and garbage is strewn everywhere.

Border Patrol policies compound the problem by driving smugglers and immigrants away from cities and deeper into remote desert areas such as parks. Up to 1,000 immigrants may pass through Organ Pipe in a single day.

Thompson says he needs an extra $1 million and least 18 rangers to do a credible job of policing the park. Right now, he has only enough summertime staff--from five to seven rangers--to patrol during daylight hours. At night, the preserve becomes a no-man's land. Traffickers have even tapped the park's visitor center as a nocturnal staging area.

Staffing worries only increased following September 11, when parks were ordered to dispatch rangers to areas considered potential targets.

With barely enough rangers, the Coronado National Memorial near Sierra Vista has ridden a crime-laden roller coaster since the attacks. "We saw a decrease in (illegal traffic) immediately after September 11," says Chief Ranger Thane Weigand. "But in the last couple of months, we've been on an increase again."

He says reasons for last fall's drop-off probably had little to do with terrorists. "Two days after 9/11, we were doing a special operation here in the park, and we actually had an armed drug scout walk into the middle of our operations. We chased him back to Mexico. And I think word got back to Mexico that the mountains were being patrolled. After that, drug trafficking literally shut down for three months."

However, the number of undocumented immigrants passing through Coronado has remained steady. "Right now, we're averaging in the neighborhood of 150 undocumented aliens coming through our park each day," Weigand says.

The resulting environmental impacts "are huge," he says. "We easily have 24 trails in this park that have been created by illegal border traffic. The amount of trash that we have to pick up annually is incredible."

At the 860,000 acre Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge near Ajo, "We should really have 50 more officers," says staffer Vergial Harp, with tongue only slightly in cheek. Currently, Cabeza Prieta has only three officers. Of those, two--including Harp--also do maintenance and resource management.

Still, even extra manpower can't counter current border policies, he says. "We were brought in as wildlife managers, and I think we do that very well. But when we get thrown into this situation ... how do you manage wildlife as you're getting bombarded by all these political issues?"

Meanwhile, the White House and Congress wrangle over budgeting for more park rangers. Even the Interior Department's own Inspector General recently wrote a scathing critique of his agency's failure to fund law enforcement needs.

Responding to the report, Sen. Charles Grassley, a ranking member of the Subcommittee on Crimes and Drugs, took Interior Secretary Gale Norton to task. Grassley described the IG's report as "one of the most damning indictments of a federal law enforcement agency that I have ever read," and called it "a wake-up call for reform and highlights that there has been little to no oversight of Interior's law enforcement in the past several years."

If change is on the horizon, so far it remains incremental at best. President Bush has proposed raising the Park Service budget to $2.4 billion next year, reflecting a meager $33.7 increase over the current budget. In Congress, Rep. Jim Kolbe prodded the House Appropriations subcommittee on the Interior to allocate $1 million for mitigating damage to federal lands mostly in southern Arizona.

Those extra funds came on the heels of yet another a scorching report, this time prompted by Kolbe, and conducted by the Interior Department, Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Environmental Protection Agency.

"As a result of the vast amount of smuggling of humans and controlled substances in Southeast Arizona," the report says, "the extremely valuable, and sometimes irreplaceable, natural and cultural resources ... are in jeopardy."

The study calls for an additional $23.5 million next year, and $62.9 million over the next five years, to hire more rangers and repair damaged parks in Southeastern Arizona--including Kolbe's 5th District, but excluding Organ Pipe.

Meanwhile, Organ Pipe and other parks west of the 5th District deteriorate daily. Kolbe's spokeswoman, Neena Moorjani, is optimistic that the report will spark "another study looking at the entire border region, with ours as a model." Eggle's death no doubt will prompt greater attention to the problem.

There's little time to waste, says Dale Thompson. "The border problem is a national issue. But it's also affecting this park to the point that, maybe in 10 years, it won't be of national significance anymore. We're going to lose the resource."

More by Tim Vanderpool


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