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Strip of refuge closed by border battles

Buenos Aires seeks to keep hikers from being caught in crossfire of ‘criminal activity’

First came the illegal immigrants. Then came the U.S. Border Patrol to chase them. Then came the National Guard to back up the Border Patrol agents who were chasing the illegal immigrants.

All of it has proved too much.

Administrators of Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge have decided they need to close the heavily trafficked southern strip of the refuge to protect the public.

“You’ve got well-armed bad guys and well-armed good guys, and we don’t want the public down there in the middle of all that,” said refuge manager Mitch Ellis.

The closure will affect around 3,500 acres of semidesert grass land of rolling hills and mesquite trees that border Mexico. It is the first closure in the park’s history due to illegal immigration, Ellis said.

Illegal traffic in southern Arizona has decreased for the first time since 2000 and Ellis attributed the decline to the U.S. Border Patrol and National Guard troops.

He praised their efforts, but he said he no longer felt safe letting the public in the heavily patrolled area.

“If you have a bird watcher or a hunter or somebody down there enjoying their public land and they get crossways in this border situation . . . somebody could get hurt,” Ellis said.

Biologists at Organ Pipe National Monument began making similar closures three years ago. Today, about 20 percent of the 330,000-acre monument is closed to public due to illegal immigration, including the Quitobaquito Spring area, which is one of the few water sources in the monument.

Another 30 percent of Organ Pipe is closed for at least part of the year to protect pronghorns.

The phenomena is unique to the national parks along the border, said Organ Pipe Chief Ranger Fred Patton.

He said parks around the rest of the country have other concerns.

“Bears, lightning, avalanche danger,” Patton said. “But I think you’d been hard-pressed to find closures anywhere else in the country because of criminal activity.”

The closures at Buenos Aires went in effect Oct. 3 and will remain in place indefinitely.

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