The Desert Sisters

Too Wild for One Country


Tinajas Altas mountains, with cottontop cactus in foreground — photo by Jack Dykinga
Tinajas Altas mountains, with cottontop cactus in foreground
— photo by Jack Dykinga —

A map of the US-Mexican border reveals a unique opportunity. Both countries have large desert reserves astride the line in southwestern Arizona and northwestern Sonora. Together these areas are a wildland despoblado of nearly 5.8 million acres. That’s 9,000 square miles of wild silence, and a stark, secret beauty.

It’s a region where people never quite figured out how to make a living. It’s too hot, too dry, too rocky, too sandy, too hostile for us to stay. Even the conquistadors, pioneers, and miners moved on. Both countries have recognized the natural worth of this place by designating two biosphere reserves, two national monuments, and a wildlife refuge. It is home to endangered species, vivid sunsets, and more open space than we can see in a lifetime. Its beauty fills hearts; its intrigue fills books.

But just as any building needs fresh paint and fire insurance, any land needs upkeep to resist ruin, and updated policies to maintain its value. In conservation, taking care of land is far easier and less expensive than massive efforts to repair it, and of course no one can build new wild places.

That’s why a group of citizens is proposing some changes in the heart of the Sonoran Desert. First, re-name Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument as a national park. This move needs an act of Congress, but it’s called for in the monument’s management plan and requires no new study or study money. At 330,000 acres, it is bigger than many parks, and because it has multiple significant features - unique plants, representative geology, rare and interesting wildlife, distinctive archaeology and settlement history, important springs and natural waterholes, for example - it would have been designated as a park if it had been created by Congress rather than by presidential proclamation. On the practical side, parks generally receive higher budgets and stronger support from the public and Congress. And under previous federal budget crises, some monuments faced closure, but no parks did. This could be the George W. Bush administration’s first national park.

The blueprint for the second upgrade is drawn from an existing, successful model. Way back in 1932, the US and Canada established Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park as a tribute to the enduring friendship of two nations, and as a promise to be good stewards of some of the most beautiful and wild country in North America. That handshake was 72 years ago. Isn’t it time for the US to extend the same hand to Mexico? Under this proposal, the five reserves would be allied under the common banner of sister parks or international peace park. This will formalize and extend the “sister park” concept suggested by US Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Secretary Alberto Cárdenas-Jimenez of Mexico’s Secretaria de MedioAmbiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT) in 2003. The proposal is supported by groups ranging from The National Parks Conservation Association to the US-Mexico Chamber of Commerce to the Arizona-Mexico Commission.

The group will be called something like Sonoran Desert Sister Parks — the Desert Sisters - but as with any good manuscript or collaborative effort, that’s just the working title; in early discussions, the Mexicans involved prefer “parques hermanos.” Advocates are seeing it as an ecological corridor linking eco-reserves and ensuring beneficial genetic mixing in wildlife, such as desert bighorn sheep and Sonoran pronghorn. “What a magnificent thing this would be, to have a Sonoran Desert Park on both sides of the border,” says former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall.

The parks
The group will include Organ Pipe, the Cabeza Prieta, Sonoran Desert National Monument and, with Mexico’s concurrence, the Pinacate and Alto Golfo biosphere reserves. Each would remain autonomous and retain its current management and mandate.

The Desert Sisters are at the heart of the liveliest subtropical desert in the world. Over one thousand species of plants and vertebrates live in the parks. The parks’ biological importance stems not only from the desert’s diverse life, but also from its role in maintaining ecological integrity. For example, two species of migrant pollinators breed in the Sonoran Desert: western white-winged doves and lesser long-nosed bats. The doves pollinate saguaro cactus flowers and consume saguaro fruit. They arrive when flower buds begin to crown saguaros and leave Mexico when the rich pulp of the last fruit is consumed. Female lesser long-nosed bats arrive pregnant to the desert and congregate in maternity colonies, emerging by night to forage on—and pollinate—saguaro and agave flowers. The flowers and fruits of many desert bushes, cactus, and annuals represent a resource corridor that sustains other migratory birds that both need and enrich the western biomes of our continent.

Pinacate: The Reserva de la Biosfera El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar is dominated by Sierra Pinacate, a volcanic shield formed by eruptions spanning the past few million years. The 600-square-mile mountain rises from near sea level to almost 4,000 feet. Surrounding it are nine gaping maar craters, over 400 cinder cones, all now dormant, and an enormous sea of sand. In the west, a remote range called Sierra El Rosario stretches across the sand like prayer beads. The entire reserve, which supports more than 500 plant species, was created in 1993 and covers 1.8 million acres of the Gran Desierto in northwestern Sonora.

Alto Golfo: The Reserva de la Biosfera Alto Golfo de California y Delta del Río Colorado was created in 1993. The 2.3-million-acre reserve covers the far upper Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez), its coasts, and the delta of the Colorado River. This reserve is home for the endangered vaquita (Gulf harbor porpoise), totoaba (a 300-pound corvina, or sea bass), and tiny pupfish that live in freshwater springs near the high-tide mark. It has extensive mudflats and salt flats, and the lower river occasionally produces tidal bores.

Chollas, brittlebrush, and organ pipe cacti in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument — photo by Jack Dykinga
Chollas, brittlebrush, and organ pipe cacti in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
— photo by Jack Dykinga —

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is managed by the US National Park Service, which already has a number of cooperative programs with Mexico. It features enormous rhyolite cliffs in the Ajo Mountains, desert waterholes known as tinajas, and a wide variety of plants, including organ pipe and senita cactus, oak, and smoketrees. Partly because of natural springs, such as Quitobaquito, it is a bird watchers heaven, with nearly 300 species on the list. Established in 1937, it covers 330,000 acres, of which 95 percent is wilderness.

Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge spans 860,000 acres, of which more than 93 percent is wilderness. Tinajas in hidden canyons, remote summits, and wildlife lure hardy hikers. The refuge was named for Cabeza Prieta Peak, whose dark head is composed of volcanic rock layered over granite. The peak served as a landmark for California-bound travelers on the treacherous Camino del Diablo during the gold rush of 1849.

Sonoran Desert National Monument, created in 2001, is one of America’s newest national monuments. It is close to metropolitan Phoenix, but its 496,000 acres are rugged and inaccessible, and include three distinct mountain ranges. Table Top Mountain is a basalt-capped range with a rare grassland on top, Javelina Mountain looms like a giant razorback, and the Maricopa Mountains are a series of delightful granite ridges and flowered valleys.

Collectively, these five reserves run from the outskirts of metropolitan Phoenix to seaside San Felipe in Baja California. Because of the fragility of the land, virtually all visitor services are provided outside the parks and inside the local communities where gas stations, hotels, restaurants, stores, and RV campgrounds already exist. Visitors to the sister parks can watch bighorn sheep in the morning and whales in the afternoon, and be back at the resort eating heartily and sipping cold drinks by sunset.

Cities and towns in the Southwest are fast expanding: six million people live within two hours’ drive of the Desert Sisters and that number is projected to double in the next 25 years. Because these arid lands receive sporadic, scant rainfall, plants are slow to grow and wildlife is sparse. When damaged, the land is very slow to recover. Pollution, smuggling of people and drugs, illegal woodcutting and vandalism of cactus, uncontrolled camping, jostling by urban elbows, and take-it-for-granted apathy all threaten the biggest pristine tract of Sonoran Desert left in North America.

Author Charles Bowden, who has a keen sense of regional politics and history, reminds us, “For once, we have saved the best for last. And now we must save it for good. The trite objections to national parks and monuments do not apply here. The land is already federal, the in-holdings have been bought out. No private enterprise is seized. No economic player is retired. There is no left or right in this proposal. There is nothing in this proposal to trouble a Republican or Democratic administration.”

The US and Mexico are neighbors, indispensable trading partners, friends and, in many cases, family. They already share a heritage, a Boundary Commission, a raft of agreements, NAFTA, the CANAMEX trade corridor, free trade zones… and a desert. Here both countries would cooperate in management plans, guard the land, coordinate eco-tourism, and share expertise and equipment.

Given this incentive and collaboration, Mexico will find it easier to enhance its management of the Pinacate and the Alto Golfo Biosphere Reserves, better manage the Upper Gulf fishery, and extend the biosphere boundary to enfold the remainder of the Gran Desierto dunes, including the tallest one. The Mesa de Santa Clara, one of the richest fossil grounds in the region, could be also protected, as could oases and wetlands on the shores of Adair Bay.

According to Dr. Exequiel Ezcurra, President of Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology, “The creation of the Sonoran Desert Sister Parks would mean the establishment of one of the most comprehensive corridors of desert ecosystems protected anywhere in the world. From a desert sea, to halophilic shrubs, to dunes, to creosote bush plains, to cactus deserts, to rich Sonoran foothills, to sky islands with temperate plants, all this incredible array of desert lands would become protected through the joint effort of two countries.”

Frederick R. Gehlbach, who spent a lifetime studying borderland biology, urged, “Above all, I support a Gran Desierto International Park, connecting Organ Pipe Cactus and Cabeza Prieta preserves with the Gila and Tinajas Altas ranges in Arizona and the extraordinary wilderness southward, the Desierto de Altar. This oft-mentioned but untried wildland would be North America’s greatest desert museum….” It’s high time.

Writer and desert rat Bill Broyles is author of Our Sonoran Desert (Rio Nuevo Press, 2003). He lives in Tucson, Arizona.

What you can do: Register your support for the Desert Sisters and Sonoran Desert
National Park with Interior Secretary Gale Norton at 1849 “C” Street
NW, Washington, DC 20240; Senator John S. McCain at 241 Russell Senate
Building, Washington, DC 20510; and Congressman Raúl Grijalva, 1440
Longworth Building, Washington, DC 20515.

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