ORGAN PIPE CACTUS NATIONAL MONUMENT, Arizona — Warm spring weather in the Sonoran Desert brings organized public tours to an area of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which is normally closed to visitor access.
An armed "law enforcement escort" accompanies tour groups to Quitobaquito, a historic site located near the Mexican border — an area also known for drug smuggling and illegal border crossings.
According to the office of Utah Congressman Rob Bishop, the escorted tours highlight the need for proposed legislation that would give Border Patrol agents greater power for "routinely patrolling or conducting surveillance" on federal wilderness and other lands, which have "rampant criminal activity."
In a prepared statement, the Republican congressman cited news stories that describe armed federal officers toting semi-automatic weapons, making advance sweeps and watching for threats to tourists from hilltop observation posts.
"What other national monuments require armed guards to watch tours from an observation post?" Bishop asked. "Are there non-border federal lands that need 'escorts' to sweep ahead of people visiting?"
Two-thirds of Organ Pipe Cactus has been closed to the public in recent years due to security concerns, said Sue Walter, the park's chief of interpretation. Hiking trails are closed at night, but not campgrounds. Park officials recently received approval to reopen an additional 10 percent of the monument, she said.
But the concern is more one of public perception, Walter said. "The perception out there is that this is the most dangerous part of the park system." Most park employees would strongly disagree with that perception, she said.
There have been no incidents of visitors being accosted by drug traffickers or other border crossers, and no break-ins have been reported, Walter said.
"On rare occasions, (border crossers) have come into the campgrounds, usually to get water," she added. "But this is a desert environment — the choice is to get water or die."
Bishop's proposal, HR1505, The National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act, was passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee in October and is waiting to be placed on the floor calendar by House leadership.
It would prevent the U.S. Interior and Agriculture departments, which oversee most federal land, "from impeding, prohibiting, or restricting the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to obtain operational control of the border," according to Bishop's spokeswoman Melissa Subbotin. The bill would allow the construction of roads or surveillance facilities in federal wilderness and other areas.
The Department of Interior opposes the bill, according to spokesman Adam Fetcher.
In July, Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary Kim Thorsen told the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, which Bishop chairs, that the proposal would "waive all environmental and land management laws within 100 miles of the international land and maritime borders of the United States for (Department of Homeland Security) activities."
In contrast to Arizona, Bishop's bill would have less of an impact in his home state since the danger to the public from major drug trafficking groups on federal lands in Utah is very different, federal law enforcement officials say.
Utah has no concentrated area of activity, said Dan Love, special agent-in-charge of Bureau of Land Management law enforcement for Utah and Nevada. "We don't have that type of interface."
With 32 million federal acres spread over 64 percent of the state, major drug activity in Utah is much more dispersed, Love said.
Drug activity on federal lands here is focused on growing marijuana at remote sites in rugged terrain, far from public view, Love added. The growers are interested in guarding their plants rather than doing battle over smuggling routes.
"There are no 'hot zones' per se," added Sue Thomas, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration supervisory special agent.
"But there absolutely is a danger to the public when you have armed drug traffickers protecting their crops."
To date, the most serious incident happened in 2010 in Garfield County, Thomas said. A grower left his grow site after a dispute with fellow workers and encountered a group of teenage girls in a recreation area. The grower pointed his sawed-off shotgun at the girls and demanded their cellphones.
The girls feared for their lives, Thomas said. They felt the only reason the man didn't shoot them is because there were too many girls, and he didn't have enough ammunition.
"It's not a huge issue, but it certainly could be a catastrophe that is waiting to happen," she said of the backcountry danger.
Marijuana grow sites have been concentrated in the south and central parts of the state, particularly in Iron, Washington and Beaver counties, Thomas said. Their relative proximity to the I-15 corridor is no coincidence, she added.
The freeway provides a convenient route from Utah grow sites to the California organizations that run them using undocumented laborers recruited out of the Las Vegas area, she said.
No Utah residents or persons in the U.S. legally have been arrested in recent grow-site eradication operations in Utah, she added.
Other Utah counties that have had known cartel-related marijuana gardens include Kane, Sevier, Garfield and Wayne counties.
Visitors to Utah's backcountry can protect themselves by sticking to established roads and trails and being aware of tell-tale signs of the operations, especially black irrigation piping running along creek beds and near other perennial water sources.
Those irrigation systems can sometimes run for miles across public lands, diverting water to the marijuana gardens.
"We strongly recommend that you look first for the piping," Love said. "There's a ton of it out there."
Other signs to watch out for: vegetation that has been cleared and piled up, makeshift kitchens, propane tanks (used for preparing food), trash, and fertilizer bags or car batteries — which growers use to charge cellphones.
What should members of the public do when they come across these items in the backcountry?Comment on this story
"Back out quietly and immediately the exact way you came in," Thomas advised. If possible, mark the location by GPS or by noting natural landmarks, she said. "Leave quickly and quietly and contact law enforcement."
With concentrated law enforcement efforts, major marijuana growing activity in Utah may be on the decline, she said. In 2010, 106,000 plants were seized; in 2011, 78,000.
"My hope is they just pack up and leave the state," Thomas said. But the new growing season starts in a few weeks. "You never know what an eradication year is going to bring."