©Bert Gildart: Last year about this time we camped for almost a week in Organ Pipe National Monument. Subsequent to our stay I wrote several magazine stories, and posted a number of blogs that focused on the park’s beauty, but also on its tragic problems.
We’ve returned again because this is one of the nation’s premier desert parks–and because we’re curious to see what new procedures have been implemented to enable the American people to continue enjoying Organ Pipe. For the most part, we’re delighted with our findings…
SPECTACLAR CAMPGROUND SETTING
Immediately adjacent to Twin Peaks campground in Organ Pipe National Monument, there is a mountain you can climb that enables you to peer over the assortment of enthusiastic campers–as well as the Cubabi Mountains about five miles to the south. The mountains are in Mexico and it is this proximity that continues to create an immense problem for National Park Service managers.
Not only do the lovely mountains flank the park but so does a 30-mile long boundary, and unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to patrol. Each year literally thousands of illegal immigrants stream across this border, some seeking work and a better way of life.
Others, however, are desperately pushing drugs, and they are creating a dangerous situation in Organ Pipe National Monument, a situation the park is struggling to remedy. In some cases, they’ve closed sections of the park or are offering special trips so that visitors can enjoy the special heritage the monument preserves.
“National Park Administered areas are the keepers of our American heritage,” says Andy Fisher, Chief of Interpretation. “If you want to learn about legal immigration and your possible ancestors, you go to Ellis Island. If you want to learn about the Civil War, you go to Gettysburg. Likewise, if you want to learn about the organ pipe this is the only place in the nation where you can do that. That’s not easy to do right now, but our new superintendent is doing everything possible to make it possible to see all this park has to offer.”
Fisher continues, emphasizing that it is in fact, safe to visit much of this desert park. “Flowers”, she says, “are at their peak right now, and there are few places you can go to see such immense spreads of brittle brush. And the Ajo Mountain Range is always spectacular.” Fisher continues, saying that those areas that are not safe are either closed or can be visited with an organized and armed patrol.
“The superintendent is working hard,” says Fisher, “to make the entire park accessible once again to all visitors. Right now the task is not easy and is exemplified by a trip now being offered to one of the park’s most beautiful springs, Quitobaquito.
The springs is home to the pupfish, a tiny species that provided the students of Ajo, Arizona, with a project that won Ms. Fisher the prestigious Freeman Tilden award, something I learned not from Ms. Fisher, rather from Sharon Genaux, one of the park volunteers, who is proud of her association with the innovative naturalist. “Andy won first place regionally and second place nationally. Quite an accomplishment.”
The award was for a project Ms. Fisher spearheaded. Between 2005 and 2007 she and students from the junior high school at the nearby settlement of Ajo recreated a refugium at park headquarters that replicates the habitat of Quitobaquito Springs. Here, pupfish from the springs can easily be observed in a small pond at the park’s headquarters. “Should something happen to the pup fish at Quitobaquito,” said Genaux, “it’s now preserved here.”
Of course, seeing a replication is not the same as seeing the springs in real life and that is what the superintendent is now struggling to provide. Quitobaquito is located in the park’s southwestern quadrant, within a few hundred yards of the Mexican border. Safeguarding the area is not an easy task and requires an early morning, predawn patrol by a number of rangers. Once the area has been deemed safe from drug runners or illegal immigrants, each week those who have signed up can board a park van and travel with an armed escort to the springs, about 25 miles distance. With time the park is hoping that the installation of the new fence and better patrol will permit more traditional visitation.
Though visiting the springs is certainly a park highlight, if you miss the opportunity (and it is limited to about 12 individuals a week) the park still offers an incredible display of natural history features–all safe to explore or attempt to find. The Gila monster is often seen, and right now wildflowers are at their peak. As well, many species of cacti are now starting to bloom–all of which helps to make Organ Pipe National Monument one of the nation’s premier desert parks.
I’d also like to report that I am signed up to visit Quitobaquito next Tuesday, and if it all works out, I’ll have much more to report.