When two gunmen affiliated with a drug cartel fled into this border park from Mexico in August, ranger Kris Eggle grabbed his shotgun and raced to confront them. As Eggle searched a dry wash in the 104-degree heat, one of the men hidden in the desert scrub opened fire with an AK-47, delivering a fatal wound under the ranger's bulletproof vest.
The killing came after years of complaints by rangers that they were badly outmanned and poorly organized for the increasingly hazardous mission of patrolling national parks. Organ Pipe is widely regarded as the most dangerous, used daily by illegal immigrants and heavily armed drug smugglers who have cut hundreds of paths and roads in the remote back country and have left behind tons of litter.
Although the conditions here are extreme, they reflect a much broader law enforcement problem at the string of national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and Indian reservations abutting Mexico from California to Texas that is straining the rangers' dual responsibility of protecting both the facilities' environment and their visitors.
The Interior Department has primary responsibility for law enforcement in these areas, which make up 36% of the nation's southern border, but it is poorly prepared for the job, critics say.
The park rangers "are not trained, they are not staffed, they are not equipped for the mission," said Doug Scott, the agency's assistant inspector general. "There are carjackings, robberies, sexual assaults, confrontations with drug runners."
Scott warned early last year in an investigative report that the department's law enforcement operations were devoid of leadership and poorly coordinated. Then, after Eggle's killing, the pressure began to mount. The Senate Finance Committee has launched an investigation into the problems and plans to hold hearings later this year.
Historically, officials at the Interior Department and within the agency's National Park Service have downplayed crime -- part of an effort to keep up a wholesome image, said aides to committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).
As a result, the Park Service has given short shrift to law enforcement at its 388 parks, monuments and other sites, particularly along the southwestern border, say critics, who include members of Congress, law enforcement associations and the rangers themselves.
The rangers receive law enforcement training and carry weapons, but they are managed by park superintendents who typically have no such training.
Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton is trying -- with limited success -- to reform the park system. Last year, she appointed the department's first law enforcement chief in Washington. But critics such as Grassley so far are not satisfied.
"The slow pace of law enforcement reform is putting park rangers, Interior police and park visitors at risk," the senator said.
Crime has exploded at parks along the southern U.S. border, where rangers have little time for ecological tours and singing to tourists around campfires.
In 2001, rangers at Organ Pipe seized 14,000 pounds of marijuana -- up 37% from a year earlier -- and they engaged in more than 30 car chases as they pursued suspected smugglers. As many as 1,000 illegal immigrants pour through the cactus preserve each day, said Dan Wirth, a Park Service special agent and president of the rangers' chapter of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Assn.
Similar problems exist at all the Interior Department's law enforcement operations along the border -- including the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management.
In 2001, 357,000 pounds of marijuana were seized on Interior lands along the Mexican border, a fourfold increase in just two years, Wirth said. More than a quarter of it was seized on refuges operated by the Fish and Wildlife Service and more than half in areas controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.
The problems are only growing worse, Wirth said. In recent weeks, rangers seized 9,000 pounds of marijuana at Big Bend National Park in Texas. With the Mexican marijuana crop ready for harvest in coming months, busts are expected to accelerate.
Numerous ambushes, carjackings and robberies also have been reported. At Coronado National Memorial in Arizona, a tourist two years ago was taken at knifepoint from her car, tied up and pushed down a hill when her car was stolen, Wirth said.
Standing against the crime wave at Organ Pipe are three rangers, who engage in risky missions unimagined by most visitors. Drug smugglers move through the park with 50-pound packs of marijuana, Wirth said. Rangers track their footprints, hiking up to 20 miles through the back country with M-16 carbines slung across their shoulders.
"Kris had moved into a military role," said Bonnie Eggle, the ranger's mother, a schoolteacher in Cadillac, Mich. "Our son doesn't deserve to be in a six-foot grave. It is unconscionable that this happened and that our government allowed it to happen. They have known about this problem for years -- the guns, the drugs. There is a political element in Washington that favors open borders to provide cheap labor and to avoid charges that they are racist .... They don't care that my kid was murdered."
Bo Stone, an Organ Pipe ranger who was a close friend of Eggle, is circumspect on what rangers can accomplish.
"Unfortunately, it takes the death of somebody before people sit up and realize changes have to be made," he said. "All the issues down here are bigger than the Department of the Interior. You could get 100 park rangers down here, and it won't solve the problem. You would need a guard tower every quarter of a mile."
The direct response to Eggle's death has been something less: The Park Service pledged to add several rangers, although so far only temporary reinforcements have cycled in and out. The agency also unveiled plans to erect a $7-million steel-rail fence along Organ Pipe's border with Mexico, intended to stop drug smugglers from using off-road vehicles to cross the border.
The proposed barrier, however, will do little to stop anyone from walking across the open border, a security loophole that Stone and other rangers consider an invitation for terrorists.
"We have caught people from China, Pakistan and Yemen coming through," Stone said. "If 1,000 illegal immigrants can walk through the desert here, so can 1,000 terrorists."
Just a quarter-mile from the heavily guarded port of entry to Mexico in the middle of the park, a barbed-wire fence has been torn down, and illegal roads cut by drug runners' trucks crisscross the desert.
All the vehicle traffic has done massive environmental damage to the park, said Organ Pipe Supt. Bill Wellman. Surveys have revealed hundreds of illegal roads, footpaths, graffiti cut into 100-year-old cactuses, many abandoned vehicles and piles of human waste.
While even the most heroic efforts may not be able to stamp out crime along the border, critics say, the Interior Department needs to undertake major reforms to put greater emphasis on the problem.
The U.S. inspector general last year recommended placing law enforcement rangers and the so-called special agents who investigate crimes under a separate management system -- reporting to Larry Parkinson, the new chief of law enforcement at the Interior Department. Although Norton has agreed to the change, park superintendents have successfully argued that rangers should be kept under their command.
The agency plans to develop a system to collect crime statistics so it can better understand how many rangers are needed.
The Park Service's force of 1,531 uniformed rangers and 56 special agents is down substantially from 10 or 20 years ago, although nobody knows by how many because of poor record-keeping.
Critics argue that the superintendents are part of the problem. They are part of a well-organized and politically powerful bureaucracy that is resistant to reform, said Randall Kendrick, executive director of the U.S. Park Rangers Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police. The organization wants sizable increases in the number of rangers; it also wants management control to be taken away from superintendents.
But superintendents say such strong reforms will dilute their ability to run the parks.
"They won't work well, and they would work better here than at most other parks," said Wellman. "Law enforcement is only a portion of what rangers do -- and what rangers do has a major impact on how well a park is run."
The public, he added, does not want park rangers with the same hard edge as FBI agents.
"What the public wants is the park ranger to be cut from the same cloth as a Boy Scout," Wellman said.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Park Sites Seen as 10 Most Dangerous
1. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Ariz. -- The park was selected as most dangerous for the second year in a row, because of numerous incidents of drug trafficking, inflow of illegal immigrants and a work force that is understaffed to safely manage the problem.
2. Big Bend National Park, Texas -- The park shares a 100-mile border with Mexico and has significant drug smuggling, illegal immigration and organized plant and animal poachers. There are fewer law enforcement park rangers than in the past and many less than needed for safe and efficient law enforcement.
3. Padre Island National Seashore, Texas -- There are not enough rangers to regularly patrol this barrier island. Drug smuggling, illegal immigrants, poaching of endangered turtles and their eggs and illegal commercial fishing pose a threat. There is a real lack of timely backup for officers in trouble.
4. Shenandoah National Park, Va. -- This large Eastern park, which has 3 million annual visitors, does not have reliable radio communications on its eastern side. Rangers and visitors routinely go into popular parts of the park that are unreachable by the radio system.
5. Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nev., Ariz.-- Gang activity is ongoing, vast stretches of backcountry have only cursory patrols, and there is very heavy use of the lake. This is the only facility with a military-style armored vehicle.
6. Grand Canyon National Park, Ariz. -- The South Rim has some of the most congested conditions in the system, and it has been without a chief ranger, a deputy chief ranger, and district and shift supervisors for more than a year. Rangers are forced to live in substandard housing, and they often must share residences with other employees.
7. San Juan National Historic Site, Puerto Rico -- There are only two law enforcement rangers plus a commissioned supervisor in this urban park. There is no patrol car available to the rangers. The monument is in a high crime area with attendant gang and drug-related activities.
8. Yosemite National Park, Calif. -- Ranger staff has fallen to at least 40% of what it was 20 years ago. The building fire brigade has been criticized for its lack of equipment and staff by the Department of Interior, and this has not been remedied.
9. Biscayne National Park, Fla. -- There is considerable illegal commercial fishing, and problems with drug smuggling. There are days when the number of pleasure boats makes the waters very congested. There is a nuclear plant nearby, and security is a significant problem
10. Gateway National Recreation Area, Sandy Hook Unit, N.J. -- Rangers were told by the superintendent to collect garbage while on patrol. The park has the only public beach in New Jersey that allows alcohol and nudity. There are potential terrorist targets such as shipping lanes, aircraft approach patterns and research facilities.
Source: U.S. Park Rangers Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police