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  • Creating a Park, Building a Border: The Establishment of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the Solidification of the U.S.-Mexico Border
  • Jessica Piekielek (bio)

When the first superintendent of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, located on the U.S.-Mexico border in southwest Arizona, arrived to the monument in 1939, park lore holds that he drove straight through the monument and into Mexico before realizing he had overshot his destination, so seamlessly did the Sonoran Desert stretch across the unmarked U.S.-Mexico border.1 Today, the same segment of border is unmistakable, etched by 15-foot metal walls, Normandy-style vehicle barriers, and Border Patrol roads. The contemporary challenges of managing a National Park Service (NPS) unit adjacent to the U.S.-Mexico border are infamous and highly visible: drug smuggling, undocumented migration, border walls, and the potentials and pitfalls of transboundary conservation.2 Though relatively invisible in a physical sense, the U.S.-Mexico border in 1940s still presented Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument’s first superintendent, William R. Supernaugh, with challenges and opportunities as he commenced to develop a desert parcel into a park to preserve a specimen of Sonoran Desert worthy as a tourist destination.

Recent histories of U.S. border parks have explored how conservationists have negotiated national (and cultural) borders, especially in transboundary conservation projects, as well as examined the history of international parks to compare different national approaches to conservation in the same ecological zones.3 Few historians have examined explicitly how North American conservation projects in border zones have intersected with the hardening of borders, in both supportive and disruptive ways. This article explores the ways in which the National Park Service’s creation of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument during its first 20 years (1937–1957) intersected with ongoing projects by other federal agencies [End Page 1] to concretize and control the U.S.-Mexico border and the flow of people, livestock, disease, and goods across it. The NPS aims of ecological conservation and tourism advancement were not directly linked to border enforcement. Yet the formation of a particular kind of “parkscape” served to harden the U.S.-Mexico border, through NPS efforts to limit the activities and movement of people and other species within and across park boundaries. Two projects, one to conserve a “natural” space, the other to solidify a national border, were often intertwined. Specifically, NPS attempts to negotiate the residence and economic activities of local border residents within the park (in part) relied on strict definitions of citizenship and territory, definitions which border residents interpreted more flexibly. While people proved difficult to manage, joint projects by the NPS with other federal agencies to fence the park against foreign intrusion and “for” wildlife preservation successfully marked, for the first time on the western Arizona-Sonora border, a physically distinct national border. Federal conservation and border enforcement efforts in the early years of the monument were often complementary; at the same time, the possibility for cooperative binational conservation also existed, but was never fully realized.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is located in the “heart” of the Sonoran Desert, where summer temperatures reach average highs of 110 degrees Fahrenheit and average rainfall is only 3 inches a year, much of which arrives in a few annual monsoons that flood washes and roads. Most of Organ Pipe is expansive desert basins, scattered with small mountain ranges composed primarily of exposed granite, basalt, and sandstone. Permanent natural water sources in the monument are very few. Biodiversity in the Sonoran Desert is high, the product of climatic extremes and the desert’s bimodal rain pattern. Additionally, two subdivisions of the Sonoran Desert, the Arizona Uplands and the Lower Colorado Valley, meet in the area of Organ Pipe. As a result, the monument hosts species characteristic of both subdivisions, like the towering saguaro cactus commonly found in the Arizona Uplands and the pungent, subtropical elephant tree more common to the Lower Colorado Valley. The organ pipe cactus, for which the monument is named, reaches its northern limit in the monument.

In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, 330,000 acres bounded by the Tohono O’odham...