Plans for a new park in Arizona

  • Proposed Sonoran Desert National Park in Arizona

    Diane Sylvain
  • RAW, RUGGED, REMOTE: Arizona's next national park?

    Jack Dykinga photo

In 1966, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall drafted a plan to turn more than 1 million square miles of desert in his home state of Arizona into a national park. But the idea for a Sonoran Desert National Park died at the hands of a lame-duck President, Lyndon Johnson.

Now, the park idea has resurfaced, driven by a coalition of environmentalists, scientists, and writers, as well as Stewart Udall, Charlie Babbitt, brother of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, and Edward Abbey's widow, Clarke Abbey. The coalition unveiled the proposal in mid-March after quietly promoting it among federal officials.

At 3.2 million acres, or almost three times the size of Grand Canyon National Park, the park would be much larger than Udall's original vision. Creating the park, which would combine Organ Pipe National Monument, the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, would require an act of Congress.

The land, southeast of Yuma along the U.S.-Mexico border, is raw, rugged, remote and unpopulated. Mild in the winter, it is scorching in July. Writer Charles Bowden, a leader of the park-organizing effort, calls the area "5,000 square miles of silence."

That silence is already shattered by military jets, but bombing missions are the least of the worries, say park supporters. The real problem, they say, is the crowd of people who come here every year. "Right now, these areas are being hit so fast they can't last," says Sonoran Desert National Park Project Coordinator, Bill Broyles. It's a problem, he adds, that the National Park Service is uniquely qualified to handle.

Crowd control

The political landscape the proposal faces is ticklish. When it surfaced, the idea drew wary reactions from off-road vehicle groups, talk of turf wars from federal agencies and silence from most of the state's congressional delegation. U.S. Rep. Ed Pastor, whose district includes the proposed park, says he thinks the idea has a better than 50-50 chance of success, but adds, "The devil is in the details."

U.S. Air Force Col. Fred Pease, who oversees the Goldwater and 13 other Air Force bombing ranges, is bemused by the group's "silence" slogan: "If there are airplanes flying over, I question if that is silent." Air Force and U.S. Marine jets regularly fly over the area, occasionally only 200 feet off the ground. U.S. Air Force planes also fly periodic bombing missions on 3 to 5 percent of the Goldwater Range, leaving craters from concrete-filled practice bombs.

But park organizers say the pig-like javelinas and saguaro cacti can live in harmony with the bombs and jets. In fact, the military has protected a huge chunk of desert simply by keeping people out. Let the military keep using this area as long as it wishes, says Broyles.

The bombing range has not kept all people away. Off-road vehicles regularly traverse the Cabeza Prieta and the Goldwater Range (except where the bombing occurs), says Broyles, often without the required permits. Vandals have ruined several sensitive sites, including a graveyard in the Tinajas Atlas mountains.

Campers have taken a toll on the desert as well, compacting soil and turning it into what environmentalists call "moon dust." Says Broyles, "With camping, everyone wants a pristine, never-before-used campsite. If you can camp anywhere and everywhere, eventually it is not worth going to camp."

Insisting that "we're not against fun," park organizers say these activities should be channeled into designated areas before they destroy the fabric of the land. The perfect agency for the job: the National Park Service. "I think there are some real possibilities of being able to preserve a substantial amount of Sonoran desert," says Frank Walker, superintendent of Saguaro National Park.

Still, Becky Peterman of the Tucson-based four-wheel group, the Rough Riders, warns that in four or five years, environmentalists will "come up with an issue and close the park" to ORVs.

Mo Udall National Park?

Stewart Udall, now 78 and living in Santa Fe, recently recalled that back in 1968, President Johnson had balked in his last weeks in office at signing proclamations folding Cabeza Prieta and Organ Pipe into one monument. Udall hoped that Congress would later turn the monument into a national park.

"I think he may have been trying to show me in that last week who was boss," Udall says.

Today, with Arizona senior Sen. John McCain nurturing presidential ambitions and exhibiting occasional flashes of environmentalism, Udall says he is hopeful that the park idea can succeed. But he wouldn't want to name it after his late brother, Rep. Morris Udall, who championed environmentalism during 30 years in Congress (HCN, 1/18/99).

"With one or two exceptions, we haven't named our national parks for people, and I don't think we should," Udall says. "You start going down that road, and there's no telling where the politicians will take us."

Tony Davis covers growth and development issues for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.

You can contact ...

* Sonoran Desert National Park Project coordinator Bill Broyles, 520/621-5774;

* Rough Riders spokeswoman Becky Peterman, 520/682-0273;

* Sen. John McCain, 202/224-2235;

* Rep. Ed Pastor, 202/225-4065.