Under Siege

The History Of Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge Is A Natural History, Stretching Back Through Eons Nearly Untouched By Man. But That's Changing

By Kevin Franklin

THE CABEZA PRIETA Wildlife Refuge stands alone as the last great tract of unravaged Sonoran Desert. No large mining operations ever tore into this harsh expanse. No cities or towns threaten to sprawl into it. Just a few sandy tracks cross it, and only a handful of people a year wander through its desolate interior. The Cabeza Prieta remains a great American wilderness.

But with the publication of a new management plan by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the administering agency, conservationists fear for the future of this untarnished landscape. A host of organizations all want something from the refuge. Hunters, preservationists, the military, all-terrain vehicle enthusiasts, the Border Patrol, scientists, even the Federal Aviation Administration--all want the Cabeza to meet their needs.

Friends of the Cabeza Prieta, an organization dedicated to preserving the refuge's natural state, believe it will not survive as the last bastion of pristine Sonoran Desert if it's pulled apart by these entities.

Feature Equally worrisome, many environmentalists brand the Fish and Wildlife Service as a spineless weathervane. Criticism often points to an agency history of yielding to outside pressures, even if it means going against its mission of wildlife protection.

The refuge, east of Yuma, west of Organ Pipe National Monument and south of Interstate 8, covers 1,300 square miles. It's surrounded by the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range and some of the least-populated country in northwestern Mexico. It's the largest wilderness area administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service in the lower 48 states, and the largest wilderness area in Arizona administered by any agency.

Even with this great size and substantial buffers, mismanagement will ruin the refuge, warns Luke Evans, a spokesman for Friends of The Cabeza Prieta, who believes the Fish and Wildlife Service's draft management plan contains a contradictory consortium of ideas that violate the refuge's purpose.

The draft management plan contains contingencies for opening refuge roads to ATVs and dune buggies, permitting general hunting, relinquishing the ban on campfires, enacting predator control, permitting horses, pets and firearms, creating a scenic overlook, allowing the FAA to expand its radio tower network and opening Copper Canyon Road to vehicles.

The management plan says the refuge's No. 1 goal is "...to protect, maintain and restore the natural diversity of the Sonoran Desert represented on Refuge lands." Yet all of these new ideas threaten that natural desert ecosystem, Evans says. By the same token, the management plan fails to address the problems already facing the refuge.

"Visitation has tripled in the last five years out there," Evans says. "There's no reason to believe that's not going to continue. Most of the things in that plan encourage more use, but there is not going to be a corresponding intensification of management to control that use."

"The document that went out is preliminary," says Tom Baca, FWS natural resource planner. "It's a draft, and obviously subject to adjustment by virtue of what public input we receive. In no way have decisions been made in terms of what the service is planning.

"There are lots of steps and processes to go through before we'd open up any part of the refuge which is currently closed," says Baca, who oversaw the assembly of the draft management plan.

Baca has great confidence the government systems in place will filter out detrimental suggestions, but some environmentalists wonder why these suggestions were made in the first place.

"That's what gets me so upset," says Peter Galvin, a Southwest Center For Biological Diversity biologist. "These people know what they're doing is wrong, they know what they're doing is illegal. They just figure, 'Oh well, the environmentalists will battle us back.' So what if we have to spend another several months of our lives battling to protect the land that's already supposed to be protected? People fought long and hard for decades to get these refuges set up. Then, every week, there's another proposal to water down the protective standards. Why can't these people just leave an area alone and let people enjoy wild nature for the reasons it was set up, and let the wildlife live in peace? That's the problem with these land managers. They're addicted to over-management."

On the other hand, some groups, like The Desert Bighorn Sheep Society, feel the plan is mostly a good one. The Bighorn Society is a group of hunters interested in increasing sheep populations.

"We thought the plan was well thought out," says society member Brian Dolan. "It clarified some things that seemed arbitrary in the past."

Dolan says a lot of rules were unclear, particularly when it came to driving on the refuge.

"The new refuge plan goes a long way to leveling the playing field," Dolan says.

EVANS CONSIDERS THE idea of "leveling the playing field" for hunters as ironic. Hunters already have more access to the refuge than any other recreational group, Evans says. Friends of Cabeza Prieta would like to see most of the vehicles barred from the area's administrative roads.

Those roads, built for management and law-enforcement purposes, are closed to the public. Evans says giving bighorn sheep hunters access to the roads is a slap in the face to the rest of the public.

"The hunt has nothing to do with managing the herd," Evans says. "It's a recreational hunt. I'm not saying that's bad, but if it's recreation, then why should those particular recreationists get any special privileges? If I'm a bird watcher and I want to go see some funky bird that lives out there, what am I going to do? I'm going to put on my hiking shoes and I'm going to have to walk. We should all be in the same boat. Wilderness is wilderness, it doesn't matter who you are."

Evans explains there have been numerous problems in the past with hunters driving on closed roads, camping within a quarter mile of waterholes and leaving garbage behind.

Former Bighorn Society president Warren Leek sees special access for hunters as a way to spread the impact on the herd.

"Dispersing the hunters is in the sheep's best interest," Leek says. "The more of the refuge the hunters can get to, we feel that will disperse the pressure on the sheep and increase the quality of the hunt for the hunters."

Evans says if one geographic group of sheep suffers over-hunting, the solution would not be allowing the hunters to drive all over the refuge, which would only add to the damage. Instead, the hunters should be required to hunt in specific areas and walk into those areas, if need be. If that means the hunt is limited to those physically capable of the trek, then so be it. There will be no shortage of hunters signing up for the area, he says.

Opening the refuge for trophy deer and small-game hunting is another problematic issue for Evans in the management plan. If hunter access is causing this much trouble with the very limited sheep season, imagine if there are hunters in there all the time all over the place, he says.

"Does it make sense to have these guys walking around or driving around blowing away jackrabbits and stuff like that right in the middle of the critical habitat of one of the world's most endangered land mammals (the Sonoran pronghorn)?" Evans asks. " Are we the only ones who see a problem with this?"

Former refuge manager Gale Monson thinks the whole idea of any hunting was a mistake. Monson worked in the refuge in 1940 and was refuge manager from 1954 to 1962. He did much of the initial exploration and is considered an authority on the history and geography of the refuge.

"It was a misguided action to allow Arizona Game and Fish to set up game units on the Cabeza," Monson says. "It isn't worth a few bighorn a year to have to keep an eye on those people. On 860,000 acres it takes a lot of people to control that kind of thing. I don't see why it's necessary to hunt there. Practically the entire state of Arizona is open to hunting. Why should we have to spoil the wilderness character of the Cabeza in order to put hunters out there?"

Leek sees hunting as a legitimate use of the area.

"You want to preserve it," Leek says "but then again, I think you need to make it somewhat accessible to the people. At least to the point where they can get out there and see it and feel it's our land, it's not just government land that's locked up."

WHAT MIGHT APPEAR TO be a modest impact has a lasting effect on the refuge, says Annita Harlan, a UA research scientist volunteering with the FWS. Harlan and her husband Thomas, also a biologist, have been studying the botany, geology, wildlife and archeology of the Cabeza since the late '60s.

"We've seen what happened as usage increased and people were making wood fires, us included," Harlan says. "We saw what kind of displacement was happening with invertebrate animals and how the look of the place was changing."

Harlan says that just walking there damages unique organisms that stabilize the topsoil and hold moisture during the rainy season. "Anytime you walk across it or drive across or break the soil in any way, you damage those microscopic organisms. You increase the opportunity for soil erosion from both wind and water. It turns out the native animals impact that ground cover very lightly. Human foot tread and wheeled vehicles of any kind really do damage. Which is why we recommend against additional vehicle usage and we suggest they beef up their patrols. If they added more personnel, they could actually enforce a number of the laws already in place to protect the soil. There are not supposed to be ATVs out there, but we see their tracks."

If there is one thing Harlan, the Friends of Cabeza Prieta, the Desert Bighorn Sheep Society, the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity and Monson agree on, it's the need to keep the off-road motorcycles, dune buggies and ATVs out of the refuge.

"Those things are not held on the road by natural barriers like a regular four-wheel drive," Evans says.

Baca says of course any new vehicle types allowed onto the refuge will have to stay on the public roads, but Evans and others see a formula for disaster.

"If they're going to allow those types of vehicles without more law enforcement out there to keep an eye on those people, that's just plain stupid," Evans says. "There are places on the Goldwater Range, which is immediately adjacent to the Cabeza, where those vehicles are being used, and they're trashing the place, and that's very well documented. There's no reason to believe the same thing wouldn't happen on the Cabeza.

"The thing is, if Joe ATV-guy is educated and is aware of regulations, he can go out there on his ATV and have just as much fun and just as much a decent experience as someone in a regular four-wheel drive. But traditionally, that has not been the case."

New Refuge Manager Tom Diller says he's hoping to add more law-enforcement personnel. Some staffers have been trained to take on additional law-enforcement roles, Diller says. Still, critics argue this does not signify any net increase of FWS presence on the refuge.

Given the current budget-cutting climate, Evans believes it's unlikely additional funding will come for more law enforcement.

"It's pie-in-the-sky stuff," Evans says. "Of course none of this stuff is going to get funded, so it seems to me they need to redirect their priorities. Instead of spending money on water developments and scenic overlooks, they need to spend money and time on law enforcement and protecting the place, not encouraging more use. It's going to get more use no matter what, whether they encourage it or not."

THE FRIENDS OF Cabeza Prieta are also gravely concerned about what they consider misconduct by the U.S. Border Patrol in the wilderness area.

When Congress designated 803,000 acres of the refuge as wilderness in 1990, it made a specific exception for the Border Patrol, allowing them to drive on the administrative roads. But the Friends of Cabeza Prieta claim Border Patrol personnel routinely drive off-road on closed roads and that they have made drag roads.

Drag roads are created when a truck pulls a pile of tires behind it to erase its tracks on the road. Anyone crossing the road after it's been dragged leaves tracks the Border Patrol can spot. When these tire-dragging trucks turn around, they often leave the road, thus scarring a large swath of desert.

"It looks like a street sweeper went through the desert in some places," says Evans, who stresses that Border Patrol officers on the refuge need to understand the fragile nature of the area.

"They have a right to be there under the law," Evans says. "Our beef is they need to operate it in a more sensitive manner. They need to train their people better."

Assistant Patrol Chief Maurice Moore insists the Border Patrol is hardly ever on the refuge.

"We're only in there if our pilot spots tracks and then can't get the tracks out of the Cabeza," Moore says. "Only if we cannot get any indication of footprints north of the refuge would we go in there. We aren't in there patrolling."

Moore claims Border Patrol agents enter the refuge in vehicles maybe once a month, a claim which flatly contradicts the experiences of almost everyone interviewed for this story.

"That's absolutely false," Evans says. "They're down there regularly. I know for a fact. I went for a walk up a pass near Halfway Tank and I set off a sensor, and a Border Patrol guy came down in a vehicle and checked me out. In our conversation he even told me they drive some of the closed roads regularly. They're out there. I'm just amazed (Moore) would try to deny that."

Cabeza Prieta volunteer researcher Bill Broyles has spent more than 20 years roaming the Cabeza. Broyles has maintained a water hole survey on the refuge every month for the last seven years and sometimes spends weeks at a time in the area. He routinely sees Border Patrol on the refuge.

"The fact that Maury would say that--and I like Maury--it sounds like he's trying to deny that there's any kind of problem out there," Broyles says. "Maybe he's getting word from higher on up saying that's the way it's supposed to be."

Moore is also adamant the Border Patrol never drags on the refuge's roads. Broyles has pictures of a road dragged within the last 12 months.

Whatever the Border Patrol's presence is, Diller hopes to work with the agency to reduce its impact.

"I'm going to be meeting with them soon to see what we can do to instill the wilderness issues with their agents and to try to change some of their attitudes of driving where they should be," Diller says. "I know they have a job to do and I have a job to do and we need to do it cooperatively."

Galvin is pessimistic:

"The FWS is an agency without a backbone," he says. "They've been sued successively recently over management of the National Wildlife Refuge system as a whole, for allowing activities to occur that are inconsistent with the purposes for which the refuge was set up. They're under fire nationwide for this kind of thing."

Evans believes the heart of the problem lies in a failure to understand the significance of the Cabeza Prieta.

"The FWS doesn't really realize what they have here" Evans says. "They think it's just another one of their refuges and nothing special. But it is special, very special. So far as we know, there have been no species eradicated from this range at all. It's still pristine. The word pristine is used so much it becomes cliché, but the Cabeza is pristine. Once you screw that up, it's really hard to go back.

"A lot of wilderness areas are so tiny. Pusch Ridge is a good example. It's surrounded by a city now, so what happens in the city impacts what happens in the Wilderness Area. You just can't help it. There's more people, noise, pollution--all kinds of stuff to impact the interior of that wilderness. But Cabeza is big. And if the place is allowed to manage itself, it will do fine. It's a self-regulating ecosystem. The Fish and Wildlife Service is advocating a plan which is going to meddle with that. It's one of the few places in the country where it's big enough and it has a big enough buffer, i.e. the Goldwater Range, to where it can be a completely self-regulating ecosystem--if it's just left alone. Manage the people, not the wildlife."

WITHOUT A DOUBT, the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge is one of Arizona's greatest legacies. Thousands of pioneers have tried to cross its infamous Camino del Diablo on their way to California. Many never made it. It was a critical milestone for the Tohono O'odham and Hia-Ced O'odham Indians (Papago and Sand Papago) on their way to collect shells and salt on the shores of the Sea of Cortez. Author Chuck Bowden wandered across it and wrote about the trek in Blue Desert . Edward Abbey was buried here.

But more important than these human aspects is the virtually untarnished natural history of the refuge. It is the absence of humanity that sets this place apart. For now, those who wish to find the measure of this unique character can do so. They can go deep into it, on foot, and still find the beating heart of wilderness there.

Perhaps environmental activist Doug Peacock summed the entire issue up best in his letter to the FWS about the new plan.

"It's ironic that the future of the refuge is so affected by citizens largely concerned with human use, when what has thus far defined and preserved this magnificent desert country has been the marked absence of any kind of human activity," Peacock says. "In short, the Cabeza Prieta region is the best shot at a big, self-regulating ecosystem we have in the lower 48, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to speak for and create true wilderness in the late 20th century." TW

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