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