ORGAN PIPE CACTUS NATIONAL MONUMENT, Ariz. (AP) – For over a decade, armed drug traffickers were so prevalent in this vast desert monument that visitors were barred from entering more than half of it.
One law enforcement group dubbed it America's most dangerous park for two years straight after drug smugglers gunned down a ranger.
But a series of crackdowns and decreased traffic on Arizona's border with Mexico have turned things around at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. For the first time since 2003, visitors can access all 516 square miles of the park named for a unique cactus breed that resembles a pipe organ with its long, narrow arms and short trunk.
The picturesque monument epitomizes the challenge of protecting visitors and government workers from the dangers of smuggling in southern Arizona, where large swaths of the border with Mexico are public land. Along the border and very near to it are four wildlife refuges, three national parks, two state parks and two wildlife conservation areas.
The 2003 closure of nearly 70 percent of Organ Pipe marked the first time in recent history that a national monument was largely closed because of threats posed by humans. It followed several incidents involving drug and human smugglers, including the 2002 death of Kris Eggle, a 28-year-old law enforcement park ranger killed while pursuing a group of smugglers.
For those brave enough to want to hike through the park's closed areas, rangers armed with long rifles provided security on guided tours.
A drive down Arizona State Route 85 past the old mining town of Ajo leads to Organ Pipe and its organ pipe cacti and countless saguaros. In the summer, the heat is unforgiving, but during the rest of the year, the striking desert landscape attracts visitors from across the country. Climbers also have taken an interest in the mountain ranges and cliffs that surround the park.
"This is one of the great ecosystems in the United States, and we wanted to see it," said Sam Pearsall of Raleigh, North Carolina.
Pearsall and his wife, Linda, hiked the 1 ½-mile Desert View Trail this fall. Organ Pipe was one of about 40 national and state parks the couple visited during a months-long tour.
"To me it's an indicator of the state of the border, if you will, when we can open these parks and people feel safe in these areas," Border Patrol Tucson Sector Chief Manny Padilla said. "It's a big indicator as to the state of the border security."
No crime figures are available just for Organ Pipe, but the Tucson sector — which comprises nearly all the Arizona border with Mexico, including the park — has seen a significant drop in activity in recent years.
The sector made 120,939 arrests in fiscal year 2013. In fiscal year 2014, which ended Sept. 30, that figure was roughly 88,000.
The number of pounds of marijuana seized in the Tucson sector also fell from 1.2 million in fiscal year 2013 to 971,180 in fiscal year 2014. The Border Patrol breaks down sector drug seizures only by pot and cocaine, although cocaine figures are extremely low.
It's a stark difference from the early 2000s, when the largely remote, rural sector was the busiest and deadliest in the nation. Back then, agents were dealing with many armed traffickers who drove from the Mexican side of the border into the park, their vehicles outfitted in camouflage as they made their way north. Other smugglers carried loads of drugs through the desert on foot.
Marijuana seizures are down overall nationwide, from 2.4 million pounds in 2013 to 1.9 million pounds last fiscal year.
Park Superintendent Brent Range credits the park's turnaround to the cooperative relationship between Organ Pipe, the Border Patrol and other federal agencies.
The Border Patrol has hundreds of agents patrolling the area, and the park has doubled its law enforcement side. The agencies share a radio frequency to communicate with each other and often conduct operations together.
The Border Patrol also uses technology to combat smuggling, installing several camera surveillance towers that alert agents when people are crossing.
Range arrived at the monument about a year ago, surprised by the sight of its rows of cacti and vast amount of vegetation. The monument had been slowly increasing access since 2009, but it was Range who pushed for a full reopening.
He says he hopes the newly opened areas translate into more tourists.
Despite the lengthy closure, Organ Pipe's number of annual visitors grew from 258,000 in 2000 to more than 330,000 in 2009. The figures dipped in 2010, with a low of 162,000 in 2012, but rebounded the next year.
"We decided that it's public lands. We want people to see it. We want people to come visit it," Range said. "And my guess is, a majority of folks who come here to visit will come back. It's that neat of a place."