ORGAN PIPE CACTUS NATIONAL MONUMENT, ARIZ. — Dale Thompson bounces along the desert terrain in his Dodge SUV, moving past the park's signature Roman-column cactuses. As he approaches the southern edge of the park, which borders Mexico, he suddenly stops and looks at a footprint in the sand.
Later, he pulls over to inspect a freshly rutted path. "Haven't seen that one before," he says, climbing back into his truck, resigned.
While rangers at most national parks spend their time checking campgrounds and the latest tourist-animal encounter, many of the green-uniformed workers here are on the lookout for smuggling routes.
The reason: Illegal immigration and drug trafficking are turning this desert wilderness into the equivalent of a war zone. Indeed, Organ Pipe's beleaguered rangers - along with a mishmash of other local, state, and federal authorities - now regularly spend two-thirds of their time policing crime.
Organ Pipe, in fact, was recently labeled the most dangerous unit in the national park system. Each day, some 1,000 illegal immigrants pass through the park, which borders Mexico for 31 miles. Backpackers routinely smuggle 60-pound marijuana cargoes: Last year alone, authorities seized 60,000 to 80,000 pounds of the illicit substance.
"And we only touch the surface of what goes on," says Mr. Thompson.
Many, however, say the monument's problems go far beyond its geography and is shared by most national parks across the country: The preserves have a severe shortage of law-enforcement manpower, with little budgetary relief on the horizon.
Thompson doesn't question the conclusions of the report, which was compiled for the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) by polling rangers across the country. "There is the potential for visitors to get hurt," he says. Campgrounds are sometimes targeted by cross-border thieves, and "smugglers come down these roads at 60 to 70 miles an hour. In April, one of our agents was nearly injured when a vehicle headed for Mexico sideswiped his vehicle and ripped the door off its hinges."
Thompson says rangers constantly block off new smuggling roads, but they don't waste time correcting the damage. Environmental problems have also cropped up as more and more transients have trampled the desert terrain.
Organ Pipe, says the FOP report, has become "so dangerous the Park Service uses it as a training ground for tactical operations." This training includes the use of body armor, state-of-the-art night goggles, motion detectors, and M-16 rifles.
Organ Pipe isn't the only Arizona park with a lot to handle. Three others - Grand Canyon, Saguaro, and Lake Mead - are included on the FOP's 10 most dangerous list. Furthermore, Texas' Big Bend National Park, which is also on the border, trails Organ Pipe only slightly.
While violent crime in national parks has actually decreased overall (homicides fell from 13 in 1995 to nine in 1999), those numbers don't accurately reflect hotspots like Organ Pipe.
"The numbers are quite low from a national perspective," says Robert Stinson, district ranger for Saguaro's western unit. "But we're talking about a lot of parks that are isolated and may only have one or two things happening for the entire year. Then you take others that are up against this stuff quite a bit, like me and Dale Thompson."
According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the number of commissioned park rangers fell by 9.3 percent in the latter half of the 1990s. Meanwhile, funding for park law enforcement will fall from $94 million this year to $90 million in 2002.
At Organ Pipe, Thompson says his current $2.2 million budget and staff of six to eight rangers "could be doubled without looking back."
Randall Kendrick, executive director of the Park Rangers Lodge, calls the lack of manpower a case of misplaced priorities. "In national parks, professional staffs have just mushroomed in the last 15 years," he says, "whereas the number of maintenance people and rangers have, if not declined, at least remained static."
President Bush's recently unveiled "National Parks Legacy Project" doesn't appear to ameliorate the situation. The plan would address a $5 billion park maintenance backlog, but it pledges no new funds for law enforcement.
Arizona Rep. Jim Kolbe, a Republican who sits on the House Interior Subcommittee, says Congress recognizes the safety needs of parks like Organ Pipe. He's helping indirectly with a 10 percent funding increase for visitors services. "As I understand it, law enforcement is a subactivity of visitors services," he says. "And the [Park Service] could choose to tell Congress they need to allocate more of that to the law-enforcement part of visitors services. More manpower is what's needed."
That was also the conclusion of a review several years ago by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "The report recommended 1,295 new rangers," says Dennis Burnett, acting Park Service chief ranger.
Today, that report gathers dust. "No new hirings have taken place," Mr. Burnett says. Meanwhile, a large "bubble" of current rangers are hitting retirement age within five years - including Thompson.
The Park Service mission, he says, is to protect public lands. "But being on the border makes this an interesting resource to protect with a small staff and tight funding. There is a crisis down here, and it's going to take future Americans' heritage away from them."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor