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for people who care about the West

On the borderline: A bleak, flat, grim, hot, gritty and wondrous desert

  El Pinacate, Mexico - This doesn't look like a national park. No signs told us how to get here. There are no restrooms, kiosks, rangers or even tourists. The ranger who used to patrol the 600-square-mile volcanic field left in 1990, and no one has bothered to replace him. Nevertheless El Pinacate is a national park, Mexico-style, designated in 1979.


To get here, we drove south out of Arizona, then angled west onto an anonymous, sooty dirt road. The soot, coughed up from ancient basalt volcanoes, has coated the ground an unexpectedly dark shade, coal black in places. Rising from this unlikely soil are brilliant green cacti, rods of red ocotillo and tiny, still, purple blossoms.


The black desert could be an apocalyptic X-ray, the spindly saguaro skeletons frozen in their supplicating poses. To the Tohono O'odham Indians, until recently called Papagos, El Pinacate is sacred. They believe saguaros are just as expressive and vulnerable as humans. In their language, the word for saguaro and human is the same.


El Pinacate lies at the heart of the Sonoran Desert. In satellite pictures, it shows as a dark stain in the middle of a pale basin. But from the ground, it feels like the center of an empty universe. The park's prime attraction - unmarked, of course - is Crater Elegante: a vast, steep hole in the ground, known as a pit crater, stretching a half-mile in diameter and plunging 800 feet deep. The result of a prehistoric, massive steam explosion, Elegante is the biggest of the dozens of craters that surround us. For all that liquid violence, the hole before us gapes perfectly symmetrical. Early Spanish explorers thought it was formed by a meteor.


The expansive view from the crater looks pretty much as it did thousands of years ago: no houses, highways, power lines or Port-o-Potties. Directly to the north are public lands, U.S.-style: a military bombing range, cow-beaten BLM allotments, a small national monument, a wildlife refuge and an Indian reservation. Four-and-a-half million acres in all. To the east are marginal Mexican farms, called ejidos, which are largely abandoned. Not far to the west and south is the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California).


Against this strange backdrop of black lava flows and deep craters, NASA astronauts practiced their first lunar landing. Edward Abbey wrote of El Pinacate: "This is the bleakest, flattest, hottest, grittiest, grimmest, dreariest, ugliest, most useless, most senseless desert of them all." He loved it, naturally.


With fewer than five inches of rainfall a year and soil temperatures that reach 175 degrees, this part of the desert repels human habitation. For that very reason, conservationists are excited about the southern Sonoran Desert. "This is one of the most pristine areas in the world because it's so dry," says Michael Soulé, a conservation biologist from the University of California at Santa Cruz.


It was while hiking in the volcanoes of El Pinacate that Dave Foreman and several buddies hatched a plan to start a little rebellious movement called Earth First!. Now, 15 years later, Foreman has returned to the desert, bringing Soulé with him, to advocate its protection. "Where else can you stand and know you are the only person for miles in any direction?" Foreman asks, not a little wistful. "The Pinacates are a biological and spiritual wonder."


The unique soils and volcanoes of El Pinacate are just a small piece of the ecological picture. Fences in this part of the world are few and far between. Consequently, over 460 migratory animal species, including two small herds of Sonoran pronghorn, call this desert home. According to The Nature Conservancy, the Sonoran Desert is the "largest intact arid ecosystem in the world."


But what exactly does "intact" mean, and for how long? El Pinacate, the desert's volcanic jewel, suffers noticeably from neglect. Trash pocks the lower slopes of Crater Elegante. Worse, poachers, cactus thieves, cinder miners and fellers of ironwood trees - trees critical to the health of senita cacti - come and go as they please. On our way in, we passed a pickup full of charcoal, made illegally in pits nearby.


Despite these problems, Mexican conservationists, as well as their counterparts in the United States, have been lobbying hard to protect the desert, with some impressive results. The Tohono O'odham tribe, whose members live on both sides of the border, has also joined the chorus. What they all want is to keep the desert healthy by managing it as a cohesive ecosystem. The question is: Can three nations with a history of enmity come together for the sake of a desert? Will the Sonoran be able to transcend its many cultural, political and administrative lines in the sand?





A border like a knife


One of the biggest barriers to the region's coordination is, not surprisingly, the Mexico-U.S. border. Just a dozen miles north of Crater Elegante, it cuts the peaceful oval desert like a serrated knife.


The border is particularly noxious to Floyd Flores, a member of the Hia-Ced O'odham tribe, formerly Sand Papagos. Although many history books call the tribe extinct, Flores says over a thousand of his people remain. All members of the larger Tohono O'odham Nation, the Hia-Ced have dispersed across the southern desert. Some live in Mexico, some in Arizona. Because of the border and language barriers, cousins have lost touch with cousins.


Also because of the border and its politics, Flores has witnessed damage to his people's traditional homeland. Bighorn sheep wander across the border to be shot by Mexican poachers, sacred spring waters on the U.S. side are being depleted for agriculture in Mexico, and American mining companies have begun drilling on aboriginal O'odham land in Sonora, where they are freed from conducting lengthy environmental and archaeological studies (see accompanying story).


With the liberalization of trade in North America, it looked like things would only get worse.


"With all this talk of free trade, there were so many issues not being discussed," says Flores, 36, who works for the O'odham tribal government in Sells, Ariz., and is learning to be a shaman. "What about the social and environmental impacts of more people coming to the border? What about the Indian burial grounds that will be dug up with new roads? We can't just be steamrollered by NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement). We have to jump in the driver's seat and take advantage of its momentum."


Just over a year ago, Flores began meeting regularly with Mexicans, Americans and O'odham to talk about regional planning and preservation. From those meetings, some important links were forged.


Indians met federal land managers, Mexican scientists met scientists from the United States, unemployed fishermen from the Sea of Cortez met chamber of commerce leaders from Arizona. Every sentence at the monthly meetings was translated from Spanish to English and vice versa.


"That kind of communication is totally new," says Flores. "We had never talked before."


Assisted by two Tucson-based non-profits, the Sonoran Institute and Friends of Pronatura, the trans-border group gained credibility, calling itself the International Sonoran Desert Alliance. The U.S. Congress even appropriated $300,000 to the alliance for the creation of sister preserves on the border.


"Frankly, this is the best thing going on the border right now," says Luther Propst, director of the Sonoran Institute and a veteran of the town meeting approach to regional planning. It was Propst who facilitated the initial meetings between ranchers and environmentalists in Gunnison, Colo., that coalesced into Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's grazing advisory committee. Propst has also led community planning workshops in Jackson Hole, Wyo.; Livingston, Mont., and other towns in the greater Yellowstone area (HCN, 4/5/93).


"The alliance is doing a remarkable job," says Caroline Wilson, the founder of a small Tucson-based group called Friends of the Pinacate. "The magic is that they've gone to the right people and interested officials who are very high up. This could end up being a model for cross-cultural preservation, and it certainly may help save the Pinacate."





Surprising steps toward preservation


Already, some surprising events have occurred south of the border. Last June, Mexico's president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, designated two new biosphere reserves in the Sonoran Desert: one was El Pinacate and the other the nearby Upper Gulf of California. These designations will add another, stronger layer of protection to this corner of the desert.


Salinas' move wasn't just window dressing to grease passage of NAFTA; Mexican ecologists had been studying the areas for a decade. One of those scientists is Exequiel Ezcurra, who now happens to be Mexico's counterpart to Bruce Babbitt. He researched his doctoral dissertation in El Pinacate, studying the area's many rare plants.


"He's very close to the Presidente," explains one pleased Mexican conservationist. "This is a good example of the changing tide in Mexico. These areas will finally receive some protection."


She may be right. In the Upper Gulf biosphere reserve, the government recently banned commercial fishing, a historically profitable industry. The Upper Gulf is considered one of the richest marine ecosystems in the world, but fisheries there have declined in recent decades due to the overharvesting of shrimp.


A biosphere reserve is the highest legal protection the Mexican government can offer, equal to wilderness status in the United States. The difference is that some traditional and commercial activities are allowed to continue in the reserve's "buffer" zones. "Core" zones are managed exclusively for biological health and diversity. The United Nations has worked with over 80 countries to designate approximately 325 such preserves.


With these two recent designations, the total "protected" land in the Sonoran Desert, including the adjacent public land on the U.S. side, totals 6 million acres. That is an area three times the size of Yellowstone, giving conservationists hope that the desert can, in fact, be managed cooperatively as the sum of its parts.


"Mexico has done a good job managing its other biosphere preserves," says Bill Gregg, the international affairs officer for the U.S. National Biological Survey. "Now I think it would be an excellent idea to restructure the southern Sonoran Desert as one big biosphere unit, with Mexico's core zones managed by Mexico and ours managed by us, with everyone working together."


It's an ambitious plan, but thanks to the efforts of the International Sonoran Desert Alliance, the players have come to the table. Just a year into their project, the nine volunteer directors of the alliance have specific goals: They will help compile a biological database for the region, identifying critical areas for protection; they will prepare an economic profile of the desert's towns; and they will ask nearby communities what they think about the sister parks and other "ecotourism" destinations. In addition, federal officials who attend the group's monthly meetings say they've been bolstered with a renewed sensitivity to the O'odham as they draw up management plans for El Pinacate and the Upper Gulf.





A legacy of conquest


Such cultural understandings are recent, and remain tenuous. From the perspective of the O'odham, the last 500 years have been marked by repeated conquest. First came the conquistadors, searching for cities of gold. Next came the missionaries, then the gold miners, ranchers and drug smugglers, and finally the U.S. and Mexican governments.


When Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was established by congressional decree in 1937, the remaining Indians were kicked out. As recently as 1962, the Park Service destroyed the last of the traditional native dwellings, apparently considering human history far less interesting than cacti.


Even now, the uniquely adapted skills of traditional Papagos are ignored by the mightier nations. These Indians perfected the world's most efficient agricultural fields: a full crop on one or two brief summer rains. Next door, where Mexican cattle are raised on irrigated grass, are the world's least efficient fields. A single hamburger requires an Olympic-size swimming pool's worth of water. Evaporation rates are that high.


Contrary to bureaucratic expectations, the greatest diversity of species coexists with traditional Native American settlements. When the National Park Service fenced off a desert oasis, many native birds left, too. It seems they had thrived on the trees and crops cultivated by the O'odham. The desert is full of paradox. While this year has seen enormous gains made in protecting land in Mexico, the government has concurrently opened its doors for wide-scale gold mining. But not without a fight: Oxford educated Mexican ecologists struggle against the department of mines.


Local conservationists know they are taking on an overwhelming project in attempting trans-border planning. But after centuries of isolation, hostility and domination by one group over another, they say it is time for the barriers to come down.


In fact, the isolationism that once characterized life on the border is slowly starting to change. For one thing, visitors can now purchase maps of El Pinacate from the gift shop in nearby Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. "We'd like to go side by side with Mexico and the tribe if that's in their interest," says Harold Smith, superintendent of Organ Pipe.


Is tourism the answer?


My guide to El Pinacate is Will Nelson, a white-whiskered man who looks much like the country singer of the same name. Even his jollity turns solemn in the presence of these brilliant saguaros, afire in the slanting afternoon light. At two and three centuries old, these cacti are the old-growth of the Sonoran Desert. He considers El Pinacate the Sonoran Desert's best asset.


"I believe it's possible to keep this area pristine and also benefit from it economically," says Nelson, who lives in the small town of Ajo, Ariz., and leads tour groups into the volcanic field.


Nelson, along with others from the desert's scattered towns - Ajo and Lukeville in Arizona, and Sonoyta and Puerto Penasco in Sonora - regularly attends alliance meetings. They are looking for alternatives to lost extractive industries. A Phelps Dodge open-pit mine closed in Ajo in 1985, and the shrimp industry has taken a nosedive in Puerto Penasco. What they are finding is tourism.


"These towns together form an economic corridor," says David Kidd, director of Ajo's chamber of commerce. "We need to erase the idea of border, and stop being so provincial. We're all interested in sustainable, steady-state development."


Jorge Luis Gamboa, Kidd's counterpart in Sonoyta, agrees. "Right now, the only kind of tourism event we have in Sonoyta is an off-road vehicle race, and that's destroying our best asset. We need to look at better options."


Others, however, envision a region of strict preservation, with economic activity only on the fringes. Bill Broyles is a physical education teacher from Tucson who one month walked 320 miles along the border. A sort of guru among desert rats, Broyles proposes one huge national park straddling the border. Such a plan would require the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Pentagon to yield to the National Park Service.


"What's going to provide the highest use for this land?" Broyles asks. "To me a national park is the clear answer. It's a distant goal, but now's the time to start thinking about it, before the roads and industries come."


Agencies other than the Park Service are less keen on the idea. "It's early yet to speak of a bi-national or tri-national park," says Maria Elena Barajas, the secretary of the environment for the Mexican state of Sonora. "But we do need to think of cooperative management, of sister parks, or of a large umbrella through which to manage each unit. The alliance meetings are a good start for that." Toward that end, Barajas is currently working with the Centro de Ecologia at the National University of Mexico and with the Tohono O'odham tribe in issuing new management regulations for the Sonoran biospheres. She expects them to be complete by next year.


From the rim of Crater Elegante, the Sonoran Desert looks immeasurably vast. Looking at the empty desert below, it's difficult to imagine all the phone calls, the translators, the meetings and the chance encounters that will be necessary to protect this land. The lonely, tri-national landscape seems to forbid communication, not foster it. But if Floyd Flores is any indication, there may a bright future for this desert. Last year, Flores met Bob Schumacker, manager of the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, which follows the Mexican border for 56 miles. Flores and Schumacker agreed to go camping together on the refuge, and Flores made informal recommendations for preserving archaeological sites.


"We give each other a perspective that we wouldn't normally see," Flores said at a recent alliance meeting. Next to him, two Mexican ecologists huddled in a discussion of buffel grass, an exotic species that is escaping from ranches into El Pinacate.


"We have a forum now for exchanging information, research and ideas. We won't always agree, but we'll understand each other." Well, almost.


"My next project," Flores added, darting a look toward the ecologists, "is to take a crash course in Spanish." n





Florence Williams is a former HCN staff reporter who free-lances from Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Her story was paid for by the High Country News Research Fund.





For more information, contact the International Sonoran Desert Alliance, 6842 E. Tanque Verde Road, Tucson, AZ 85715 (602/290-0828).