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Migrant Traffic Harming Desert

NY-06-30-00

TUCSON, Ariz. -- The Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was once untouched backcountry, a place where the rare tall cactus it's named for could grow undisturbed.

Today, the landscape is littered with white plastic jugs, food wrappers, clothes and even soiled diapers. Plants have been trampled, snapped or burned and wide footpaths worn in the ground, the desert soil compacted so tightly nothing will grow.

Park officials say this is the legacy of the thousands of illegal immigrants who have been crossing through the border monument into the United States in recent years.

''It's no longer pristine,'' said monument Superintendent Bill Wellman. ''It's hard to go anywhere and not see evidence of trash, white jugs in particular. We pick them up by the hundreds.''

Organ Pipe, 100 miles southwest of Tucson, is one of many sites along the Arizona-Mexico border facing similar problems as illegal immigrants continue to pour through.

The monument is a 330,000-acre stretch of rugged desert that runs along 30 miles of the border. All but 18,000 acres is designated wilderness.

Wellman said 40,000 to 80,000 illegal immigrants will cross through the Organ Pipe this year.

Their numbers have grown since 1995, when the U.S. Border Patrol started cracking down on entry points in California and Texas, driving many toward Arizona. The Border Patrol estimates that most of the 15,200 people apprehended in the area this fiscal year were caught on monument land.

Wellman laments the consequences.

Many just-germinating organ pipe cacti have been destroyed by migrants camping out or resting beneath the palo verde, ironwood or mesquite trees that serve as the cacti's shady nurse plants.

Some animals, including the endangered Sonoran pronghorn, may be less lucky. Increasingly, humans are drinking much of the water found at rare rock catchments frequented by wildlife, disrupting animal migrations and compounding the stresses they face in the searing desert.

Kieran Suckling, director of the Tucson-based environmental group Center for Biological Diversity, said he doesn't doubt the immigrants are causing problems but cautions against finger-pointing.

''I think we really need a good study of that impact before we jump to conclusions,'' said Suckling. ''Illegals get blamed for everything along the border.''

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On the Net:

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument: http://www.nps.gov/orpi/

AP-NY-06-30-00 0552EDT<