In 1994 my wife Becky and I drove a long, dusty road through the Sonoran Desert, to a spring-fed pond fringed with tules and cottonwoods. It was January, and so the air was cool, a mere 80 degrees or so. The pond was still in the afternoon sun, its birds silent. If there were birds. There must have been! That much water in the desert, there were almost certainly dozens of birds snoozing in each tree. Coyotes likely lurked in the shade of ironwoods. The wildlife had made itself scarce and silent as we walked, but it was certainly there, including the endangered Quitobaquito pupfish beneath the surface: about 3,500 individual fish threatened by groundwater mining and pesticide drift from Mexico, but still hanging on.
When the National Park Service took over what became Organ Pipe National Monument, it evicted all the residents. The land had belonged to the Tohono O’odham and Hia-ced O’odham people, then called “Papagos” and “Sand Papagos,” respectively, after a Pima word meaning roughly “bean eater.” The O’odham (which word means, basically, “people”) did eat beans. They grew tepary beans on fields made of flash flood debris, irrigated by winter rains and summer monsoon runoff and not much else, ten inches or so of precipitation annually. And they tended the plants around that pond as well, the wild amaranths and fruiting vines and trees. Similar oases still in O’odham hands boast a remarkable diversity of plant and animal life. The pond we visited that day is barren by comparison.
But it was peaceful, and cool after miles of sun-baked dust two-rut, and we walked around the little lake taking deep draughts of water-scented air. It was all the respite we needed, and we drove on.
I thought of that pond, Quitobaquito Spring, when I began to work on this issue’s lead article. I almost didn’t want to know what had happened to the place, which is a literal stone’s throw from the border. Quitobaquito Spring is closed to the public these days. The Park Service doesn’t say why, not formally, but the reason is clear: the smugglers, and the bandits that prey on desperate migrants, have made the place just too dangerous, at least potentially.
In my line of work you get used to seeing favorite places harmed, or even destroyed entirely. As I headed into the Organ Pipe backcountry with National Park Service staff in July, I fretted over what we’d find. Would I replace my memories of a verdant oasis with those of a trash-strewn cesspool?
I needn’t have worried. Though the landscape around Quitobaquito is far from pristine, and the place bears the scars of overuse, it is still beautiful. The air around it was a good five degrees cooler than in the surrounding desert – a mere 102° or so – and ducks dabbled in among the tules, upsetting giant dragonflies. Even in the middle of miles of environmental devastation, the last refuge of the Quitobaquito pupfish still remains. There is good news to be found still, even in the middle of devastation.
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