Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument: Is it Really America’s Best Idea?

by Dustin Munroe

Wallace Stegner, a prominent American historian and environmentalist, once referred to the establishment of national parks as “America’s Best Idea.”[1]  Stegner passionately advocated for the preservation of undisturbed wilderness because he felt that national parks and monuments helped people mentally and physically rejuvenate.  He once said, “We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.  For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”[2]

President Woodrow Wilson officially created the National Park Service when he signed the National Park Service Organic Act into law on August 25, 1916.  The mission of the National Park Service, as defined by the Organic Act, is “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”[3]

In some regards, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a true representation of Stegner’s philosophy.  During the past seventy-five years, thousands of visitors have experienced Organ Pipe National Monument by hiking through its tranquil landscape or camping in its rugged wilderness.  Preservation efforts have helped the Sonoran pronghorn antelope and other endangered species survive within the fragile ecosystem of the monument.  Numerous varieties of plants, such as the saguaro and organ pipe cacti, thrive in the desert environment.  Within the monument, archaeologists have unearthed many historic artifacts and ruins which have provided insight into the history of the region.  Their preservation efforts have helped protect the cultural resources and heritage of Native Americans who lived in the area for thousands of years.[4]  When viewed in this context, the creation of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument truly was a great American idea.

However, there are other aspects of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument that do not fully reflect Stegner’s “America’s Best Idea” philosophy.  The once-pristine desert environment is being threatened by careless tourists, illegal immigrants, drug smugglers, and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents.  Excessive litter along the trails, damage to vegetation, and vandalism of cultural sites are just a few of the biggest problems that park officials currently face.  In August 2007, Lee Baiza, the Superintendent of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, published the monument’s First Annual Centennial Strategy.  One of Baiza’s primary goals in the Centennial Strategy is to promote a safe and healthy environment for park visitors and employees.[5]

The addition of surveillance towers and vehicle barriers has marred the picturesque landscape, and the steel fence constructed along the U.S.-Mexico border has impacted the migratory patterns of animals like the Sonoran pronghorn antelope.[6]  Approximately 60% of the scenic backcountry wilderness in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument has been closed to the public because of the threatening environment created by drug smuggling and illegal immigration.[7]  Park policies have also affected Native Americans who live in the area.  Descendants of the Tohono O’odham and Hia C’ed O’odham tribes, who have ancestral and cultural ties to the region, are not permitted to live within Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.[8]  It seems that much of the monument, set aside for the enjoyment of the people, is no longer accessible to all people.

Ultimately, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument means different things to different people.  For some, the creation of the monument was indeed a great American idea, while for others, it is simply represents the negative aspects of territorialization.

[1] National Park Service, “National Park Service History: Philosophical Underpinnings of the National Park Idea,” U.S. Department of the Interior, (accessed April 14, 2012).

[2] Ibid.

[3] The National Park Service Organic Act, 16 U.S.C., §§ 1-4.

[4] National Park Service, “Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument: Park Planning: Planning Documents,” U.S. Department of the Interior, (accessed April 16, 2012).

[5] National Park Service, “Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument: First Annual Centennial Strategy,” U.S. Department of the Interior, (accessed April 5, 2012).

[6] Carol Ann Bassett, Organ Pipe: Life on the Edge (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2004), 73-83.

[7] Chris Nielsen, “Illegal Immigrants Bring Problems to Border Parks” School of Communication, University of Miami, (accessed April 19, 2012).

[8] Bill Broyles, Adrianne G. Rankin, and Richard Stephen Felger, Native Peoples of the Dry Borders Region (Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press, 2007), 140.

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