Agency renews efforts to guard Ariz. monuments

May 9, 2012 - 5:45 PM

PHOENIX (AP) — Federal officials are boosting efforts at national parks in southern Arizona to prevent what they say is a path of destruction left by illegal immigrants crossing from Mexico.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has recruited more than a dozen rangers from other states as it increases patrols of the Sonoran Desert National Monument, about 80 miles south of Phoenix, and the Ironwood Forest National Monument, north of Tucson.

Both sites typically draw drug smugglers and border-crossers because of their remote locations and possible hiding places.

The Arizona Republic first reported on the BLM's plans.

Last October, the agency began seven two-week operations, or what are called "surges," with the most recent one wrapping up earlier this month. Dennis Godfrey, a BLM spokesman, said smugglers and illegal immigrants' presence climbs because of the milder weather.

The rangers are armed and have helped arrest more than 1,200 illegal immigrants. Besides keeping watch, the rangers also lead cleanup efforts.

Since October, the surges have dug up 60 stolen or abandoned vehicles, 60 bikes and at least 24 tons of trash, the BLM said. The illegal trekking has also led to miles of illegal roads, destroying fragile vegetation. Godfrey said rangers have been working on restoring trails and off-road destruction.

A strategy that seems to be making a difference, according to Godfrey, is the establishment of vehicle barriers throughout the Sonoran Desert National Monument. Made from old railroad steel, these barriers block smugglers from driving into wilderness areas.

"Is it the ideal situation for a national monument? No, it is not but when we see results of trash going down and illegal roads way down and illegal trails way down ... that's a trade-off we're willing to take at this time," Godfrey said.

Conservation groups are also unhappy with the barriers and their effect on the landscape.

Thomas Hulen, director of Friends of the Sonoran Desert National Monument, said his organization understands the BLM, which started the patrols in 2010, has very few ways to combat smugglers. He just wishes the barriers didn't stick out so much.

"Fortunately they rust. So after a while, they look like modern art sculptures. But it's really not appropriate to be in a wilderness area," Hulen said.

The 487,000-acre Sonoran Desert park is known for its majestic saguaro cacti and villages that were inhabited by several Native American tribes. The smaller 129,000-acre Ironwood Forest monument has been a major attraction for its 800-year-old ironwood trees and houses 200 ancient Hohokam sites.

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Information from: The Arizona Republic, http://www.azcentral.com