Park History: 1937-1976

by Gage Patinella

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

On April 13, 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law a proclamation establishing Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.  The creation of the monument marked the biggest withdrawal of land from Arizona’s public domain in state history.[1]  However, the creation of the monument did not bode well with all the parties involved.  Chiefly, the creation of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument provoked the anger of economic interests most intimately connected with the land in the area.  Through sustained political pressure, both ranchers and miners were able to win significant concessions that allowed for the continuation of ranching and mining within the monument proper, despite the environmental hazards their prolongation entailed.[2]  Effectively, the conservation efforts of the initial legislation became obstructed from the beginning and the monument succumbed to the economic and political demands of the ranchers and miners.

Ranching/Gray Family History

The Gray family, who had been ranching in the area for close to twenty years, presented the National Park Service with its biggest problem in regards to cattle grazing on monument lands.  Five months after the establishment of the monument, Robert Louis Gray, took action to ensure his grazing rights.  Through Ajo attorney Alton C. Neterlin, Gray protested the withdrawal of the land , to Arizona’s Democratic United States Senator Carl Hayden.  In 1939 Hayden arranged for the Gray family to receive a permit to graze their cattle on the monument land.  Under the terms of the permit, the Gray family could maintain 550 heads of cattle, twenty-five bulls, and nine horses in return for a minimal fee of ten dollars per year.[3]  In 1942 Robert Gray won the right to graze an additional 500 cattle upon monument land, essentially doubling the number of cattle he owned.  In 1949, Robert Gray extended his grazing rights to his partners, Henry, Jack and Bobby Gray, who were also his sons. In 1966, four years after the death of Robert Gray, the Gray’s ranching operation received a major setback.  U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Stuart Udall, announced that the Gray family must cut their livestock numbers back to the 1939 number of 550.[4]  This announcement further worsened the relationship between the Grays and the National Park Service.  By 1968 the Department of the Interior decided that continued grazing on monument land was detrimental to the environment and accordingly instructed the National Park Service to terminate the Gray family’s permit.  In 1970 the grazing right ended, and the termination created numerous complications for the Grays and for the park service itself.  Compensation for the Grays’ relief never materialized, and cattle continued to trample and eat desert foliage.  Time finally settled the inactions of the Government.  By 1975 Jack Gray perished, followed the next year by his brothers Henry and Bobby, effectively dissolving the Gray partnership forever.[5]

The Grays were not however the only people entitled to grazing rights within the monument at the time of establishment.  The Tohono O’odham Indians had ranged their cattle over parts of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument for centuries.  In 1939 the Commissioner of Indian Affairs asked permission to allow the Tohono O’odhams to continue grazing their stock in the southeastern area of the monument below the Ajo Mountains, a traditional range for the tribesmen.[6]  The National Park Service granted the request in 1940 on the condition that drift fences be built in the passes to prevent the cattle from wandering indiscriminately into other areas of the park.  The Indians annually paid a minimal fee for the right to graze within the monument until 1959 when the fee was discontinued.[7]  During the mid-1940s the construction of a fence along the border began.  This fence however differed greatly from the one in place today.  Constructed to keep Mexican cattle separate from American cattle, the goal of this fence was to stop the spread of contagious disease from Mexico to the United States.  In 1947 hoof and mouth disease spread north through Sonora to the border region.[8]  By 1959, all grazing rights within Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument had been terminated, and in 1975 the final cattle had been removed from the monument.

Mining History

National Park Service logo

Prior to the establishment of the monument, there had been little opposition from the mining community, however, once the exact size of the withdrawn tract had become known complaints came fast and loud, mainly from the Arizona-based Small Mine Owners Association.[9]  The legislation creating the monument allowed for continued mining within the boundaries of the park, so long as the claims had been made prior to establishment of the monument.  This, however, gave association members little satisfaction. The group’s chief spokesmen, Albert I. Long, publicly vocalized his discontent, claiming that the area would be henceforth closed to prospecting and to the registering of more claims.[10]  Long’s petition for changes in the mining clause coincided with threatening world happenings that were to culminate in the outbreak of World War II.  “National necessity” provided added incentive for restoring the right to prospect on the monuments land.[11]  In 1940 bills introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate restored unrestricted mining within the monument.  Groups such as the Gila Bend Lions Club strongly opposed the bill and petitioned the idea of turning the monument into a National Park, which would thereby end all mining within the park completely.  On October 27, 1941, President Roosevelt signed into action the measure entitled, “An Act to permit mining within Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona.”[12]  Unrestricted mining and prospecting plagued the monument.  Not only did mining pollute the environment, it also caused irreparable damage to plant and animal life by contaminating water and destroying natural habitat.  However in 1976, environmentalists’ hard work finally began to pay off.  On September 28 of that year, Congress passed Public Law 94-429, which repealed the 1941 law allowing for unrestricted mining within the monument.  This new act recognized the fact that modern mining technology, together with “continued application of the mining laws of the United States to those areas of the National Park System to which it applies, conflicts with the purposes for which they were established.”[13]


[1] Jerome A. Greene, Historic Research Study, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona, 61.

[2] Ibid., 63.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 64.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 65.

[7] Ibid.

[8] National Park Service, “Monument Timeline: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument,” National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/orpi/history/culture/monument-timeline.htm (accessed April 16, 2012).

[9] Jerome A. Greene, Historic Research Study, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona, 66.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 67.

[13] Ibid., 68.

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