An unforgiving expanse of Arizona desert that's almost as big as Rhode Island is now off limits to nearly everyone except drug smugglers, illegal immigrants and the Border Patrol agents who chase them.
From March 15 to July 15, dirt-road closures meant to protect the endangered Sonoran pronghorn will prevent public access to three-quarters of the 860,000-acre Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and one-third of the 330,000-acre Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (HCN, 3/29/99: Plans for a new park in Arizona).
Biologists say the pronghorn will be especially stressed this lambing season because winter rain has been so meager and forage is thin. But in a place where illegal visitors far outnumber legal ones, the Border Patrol will be exempt from the restrictions.
That has some people accusing land managers of ignoring the real problem: Border Patrol agents who chew up roads with their SUVs, yet fail to protect the wilderness from illegal border crossers.
"All these armies of Ford Expeditions are running through the volcanic soil and creating bottomless sand pits," said Jack Dykinga, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer. "They're not sealing the border. They're letting people get in and U.S. wilderness gets trashed in the process."
Although the Border Patrol insists it only drives off-road in life-or-death circumstances, officials at Cabeza Prieta and Organ Pipe say the agents do sometimes trample natural resources.
"But without them, the damage to the refuge would be much greater," said Michael Lusk, acting manager of Cabeza Prieta. Last year, the refuge pulled 25 abandoned vehicles off its property, while Organ Pipe rangers found 40 miles of wildcat roads blazed through their monument.