Neighboring Land Parcels

by Dustin Munroe

During the twentieth century, the United States and Mexican governments set aside several parcels of land in the Sonoran Desert for specific purposes.  Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar Sonora were established to preserve the flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert landscape, while the Tohono O’odham Nation is home to Native American people indigenous to the region.

Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge

Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge is located on the northwestern side of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.  It consists of 860,010 acres of protected Sonoran desert, making it the third largest wildlife refuge in the continental United States.[1]  President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the refuge on April 2, 1939 to serve as a protective area for desert bighorn sheep.  Conservationist groups such as the National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society, as well as 10,000 Boy Scouts of America, spearheaded the campaign to create the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge by raising public awareness throughout the state.  Arizonans expressed their support by placing “save the bighorns” posters in store windows and prominent citizens gave speeches to garner public support for the establishment of the refuge.[2]

The temperature in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge regularly exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer months.  According to the National Park Service, as many as 391 different types of plants and more than 300 different species of wildlife have made Cabeza Prieta their home.[3]  In order to maintain the tranquility of the refuge and preserve the undisturbed wilderness, vehicles are only allowed on designated public roads.[4]  Restricting off-road travel has also helped protect the fragile vegetation.  Plant species such as mesquite, palo verde, ironwood, and ocotillo, cholla, and saguaro cacti are found throughout the mountain ranges.  Minimal contact with humans has helped increase the population of endangered species like the Sonoran pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, desert tortoise, and elf owls.[5]

The Tohono O’odham Nation

The Tohono O’odham Nation is a Native American reservation located on the eastern side of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.  It is home to more than 28,000 Native Americans from the Tohono O’odham, Gila River, Ak-Chin, and Salt River (Pima Maricopa) Indian Communities.  The federal government does not yet recognize the Hia-C’ed O’odham tribe, whose members are scattered throughout the Tohono O’odham Nation.[6]

For thousands of years Native Americans have occupied the region that is presently the Tohono O’odham Nation.  The earliest inhabitants travelled throughout the area, hunting animals and gathering wild plants for food.  When Europeans arrived in the region in 1540, they introduced the native people to deadly diseases, foreign languages, and dramatically different lifestyles.[7]  The Europeans named the region Papagueria, and its primary inhabitants were the O’odham and Apache tribes.  In the nineteenth century, the notion of “Manifest Destiny” brought many white settlers to the region.  The U.S. government established the Tohono O’odham Reservation in 1917, but the Tohono O’odham didn’t adopt their first constitution until 1937.  Although Anglo-European traditions have permeated many aspects of everyday life, the Tohono O’odham have managed to preserve many of their traditions as well as their native language.[8]

El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar Sonora

El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar Sonora (translated as “The Pinacate and Great Desert of Altar Sonora”) is located on the southern side of the United States-Mexico border.  The park’s namesake is the Pinacate beetle, a native insect found in the Sonoran desert.[9]  The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated El Pinacate and its sister park, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, as International Biosphere Reserves because of their unique natural features.[10]  El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar Sonora was established by the Mexican government in 1993 and is managed by the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas.[11]

The desert landscape of El Pinacate stretches for nearly 2,800 square miles.  Tourists from around the globe travel to the reserve to see the world’s largest concentration of Maar craters, which were created by volcanic eruptions that occurred tens of thousands of years ago.[12]    The largest of the craters, El Elegante, is approximately 5,100 feet wide and 800 feet deep.[13]  The reserve also contains a mountain range formed by volcanic cinder cones.  NASA’s Apollo 14 astronauts used El Pinacate as a training ground in the late 1960s and early 1970s because its landscape contained volcanic craters, mountain ranges, and sand dunes similar to those found on the moon.[14]

El Pinacate is home to many species of plants and animals.  Park officials closely monitor endangered species like the Sonoran pronghorn, bighorn sheep, Gila monster and desert tortoise to ensure their continued survival.  Vegetation such as the saguaro, organ pipe, and barrel cacti as well as ocotillo and mesquite are able to withstand the arid conditions of the reserve, which receives less than 8” of precipitation per year.[15]

Further Reading

Búrquez, Alberto, and Angelina Martínez-Yrízar, “Conservation and Landscape Transformation in Sonora, México.” Journal of the Southwest 39 (Autumn–Winter 1997): 371-398.

Chronic, Halka. Roadside Geology of Arizona. Missoula: Mountain Press, 1983.

Ezcurra, Exequiel, Miguel Equihua and Jorge López-Portillo. “The Desert Vegetation of El Pinacate, Sonora, Mexico.” Vegetatio 71 (July 15, 1987): 49-60.

Hardy, Paul C., Michael L. Morrison and Robert X. Barry, “Abundance and Habitat Associations of Elf Owls and Western Screech-Owls in the Sonoran Desert.” The  Southwestern Naturalist 44 (September 1999): 311-323.

Parker, Kathleen C. “Site-Related Demographic Patterns of Organ Pipe Cactus Populations in Southern Arizona.” Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club 114 (April – June 1987): 149-155.

Robinett, Dan. “Tohono O’odham Range History.” Rangelands 12 (December 1990): 296-300.

Teague, Lynn S. “Prehistory and the Traditions of the O’odham and Hopi.” Kiva 58 (1993): 435-454.


[1] Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, “Welcome to Cabeza Prieta NWR,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, http://www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/arizona/cabeza/index.html (accessed April 1, 2012).

[2] Edward H. Saxton, “Saving the Desert Bighorns,” Desert Magazine 41 (March 1978): 16-18.

[3] National Park Service, “Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument: Things to Do, Nearby Attractions,” U.S. Department of the Interior, http://www.nps.gov/orpi/planyourvisit/cabeza-prieta-nwr.htm (accessed March 31, 2012).

[4] “Welcome to Cabeza Prieta NWR.”

[5] “Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument: Things to Do, Nearby Attractions.”

[6] Tohono O’odham Nation: “History and Culture,” Tohono O’odham Nation, http://www.tonation-nsn.gov/history_culture.aspx (accessed April 2, 2012).

[7] Bill Broyles, Adrianne G. Rankin, and Richard S. Felger, Dry Borders: Great Natural Reserves of the Sonoran Desert (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2007): 128.

[8] “History and Culture.”

[9] National Park Service, “Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument: Things to Do, Nearby Attractions,” U.S. Department of the Interior, http://www.nps.gov/orpi/planyourvisit/pinacate.htm (accessed March 31, 2012).

[10] The MAB Programme, “Biosphere Reserve Information: Mexico,” UNESCO, http://www.unesco.org/mabdb/br/brdir/directory/biores.asp?code=MEX+10&mode=all (accessed March 31, 2012).

[11] The National Commission of Natural Protected Areas, “Sitio Internet Dedicado a la Reserva de la Biosfera El Pinacate y Gran Desieto de Altar,” CONANP, http://www.conanp.gob.mx/english.php (accessed March 31, 2012).

[12] Instituto Nacional de Ecologia, “High Desert of Altar and Pinacate Biosphere Reserve,” Secretaria de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, http://www2.ine.gob.mx/publicaciones/libros/2/pinacate.html (accessed March 31, 2012).

[13] Beverly Arrowood, “El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar, Sonora,” Visit Rocky Point, http://www.visitrockypoint.com/el-pinacate-y-gran-desierto-de-altar-sonora (accessed March 31, 2012).

[14] Ibid.

[15] “High Desert of Altar and Pinacate Biosphere Reserve.”

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