Parks at Our Nation’s Borders

October 1, 2018, Feature, by Paula M. Jacoby-Garrett

2018 October Feature Border Parks 410

Balancing the need to connect with security concerns

We live in a time when our nation’s borders and their safety are in great debate. From those who fight for the creation of a wall to secure our southern border, to those who believe a wall isn’t the answer — the arguments are many, and the emotions are high.

Along the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada are parks, and, like parks across the rest of the country, they face challenges with staffing, community engagement and funding that they must work to overcome. In addition to these challenges, these parks must manage adverse activities, such as illegal border crossings and drug trafficking, that impact not only park visitation, access and security, but also the ecology.

Some Border-Area History

The continental United States hosts nearly 6,000 miles of border between Mexico and Canada. Initially, maps contained the only real demarcation of those borders. Soon, however, monuments or wire fencing would mark those boundaries, and today, walls are believed to be the most effective divide. Both borders pass through a variety of terrain, dissecting what author Ronald Rael in his Borderwall as Architecture lists as “rivers, farms, homes, Native American lands, public lands, cultural sites, wildlife preserves, migration routes, and a university campus.”

Our almost 4,000-mile border with Canada is considered the longest undefended border in the world, although it’s enforced by personnel from both countries. One of the best known and loved parks along this border is Peace Arch Park. First dedicated in 1921 to celebrate peace between the two nations, this park continues to be a symbol of collective peace between the two countries.

The park’s 67-foot concrete arch, constructed to mark the centennial of the treaties that resulted from the War of 1812, sits on the international boundary between the two countries. “The Peace Arch Monument is on the National Register of Historic Places,” says Jason Snow of the Washington Parks. “One half of it rests in [British Columbia] Canada and the other half in the [state of Washington] United States. It’s a symbol of peace that’s inspirational to the world. There is no fence [between the countries], only signs.”

“The possibility exists for illegal activity to occur anywhere along the United States’ border with Canada, and the Peace Arch State Park is no exception,” says Jason Givens, with the U.S. Border Patrol. “Illegal crossings can occur in both directions, north and south. Positive relationships with our Canadian counterparts help in the detection and apprehension of cross-border activity” and “border security includes, among other things, agents stationed in and near the park and remote video surveillance systems,” Givens adds.

Peace Arch Park is a botanical attraction with formal flower beds, sculpture gardens, picnic areas and a vast lawn. For Christina Alexander of the United States Canada Peace Anniversary Association, the park has special meaning. She often visited the park as a child and has fond memories of spending time there with her family. She and her volunteer team put on an annual summer Peace Arch Celebration where the public from both countries celebrate their long history of friendship. Planning has already begun on the 2021 centennial celebration.

Challenges at the Borders

In southern Arizona along the U.S. border with Mexico is Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which has some unique problems because of its location. One of the most biologically diverse areas in the Sonoran Desert, Organ Pipe has had its share of challenges in the past few decades. A 2010 survey of the park found more than 2,500 miles of illegal roads crisscrossing this monument, which is used extensively for illegal border crossing and drug trafficking. These unlawful border crossings and the resulting roads have significantly impacted the ecology of the monument.

Some of our “cross-border challenges include creation of trails and routes, accumulation of trash and waste, and impacts stemming from interdiction and lifesaving efforts,” says Frank Torres, chief of interpretation and visitor services. There’s also competition between the illegal trespassers and wildlife for natural water sources.

Strategies to manage the park include agreements, mutual support, coordination and assistance with other agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, the Bureau of Land Management and other state and local agencies. In 2003, much of the park was closed to the public, a move prompted by the death of ranger Kris Eggle, who was shot and killed in the park while pursuing members of a drug cartel. At one point, visitor access to the park was limited to a mere 5 percent because of safety concerns. Today, security measures have been implemented in conjunction with multiple agencies, resulting in approximately one-third of the park now being open to visitation.

For Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas, no wall is needed — the Rio Grande is the international boundary between the United States and Mexico. The park partners on conservation efforts with the World Wildlife Fund and the Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP), a Mexican federal agency that protects natural areas and manages the Santa Elena Canyon protected area on the Mexican side of the border.

The Big Bend National Park has law enforcement rangers who work closely with U.S. Border Patrol agents to ensure park safety. “This is an amazing park, with breathtaking vistas, incredible biodiversity and fantastic opportunities for recreation. Its remoteness enhances the park, giving it the darkest night skies of any park in the continental U.S.,” says Jennette Jurado, public information officer for Big Bend National Park. In fact, Jurado adds: “Its location on the border gives visitors even more great opportunities, including the ability to cross through our Port of Entry to a remote village in Mexico, where local border culture and amazing food can add to your visit.”

Balancing Visitation with Security

Along our southern border, fencing that once consisted of wire has been replaced by metal walls and concrete posts in many areas. This is the area being focused on in the nationwide discussion about creating a wall along the entire southern border. To date, almost 700 miles of completed fencing spans the 1,900 miles of border with Mexico.

Nowhere else along our borders is the conflict between security and park visitors more apparent than at Friendship Park, on the Tijuana and U.S. border. Since the mid-1800s, people from both countries have been meeting at this site. In 1971, First Lady Pat Nixon dedicated a park at the site as a symbol of friendship between the two countries. Today, this site is the only binational meeting place that is federally designated along the border with Mexico.  

Until the mid-1990s, there was no border fence at Friendship Park, and people from both countries visited each other in the park under the watchful eye of U.S. Border Patrol. In 1994, a 14-mile fence was constructed along this section of the border, creating a physical barrier between visitors, but people were still allowed to touch each other and pass objects through the fencing.

In 2009, the park was closed, a second parallel border wall was erected on the U.S. side of the existing fence, and all park visitation stopped. Three years later, the park re-opened to the public, during specific days and times, under the intense supervision of U.S. Border Patrol. Today, the park is open Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Visitors should expect to show identification, and the number allowed into the park is limited by the number of Border Patrol personnel supervising. Current regulations allow a maximum of 10 adults in the park at one time with a 30-minute visit time. Visitation times may be cut short, depending on the number of visitors, to give everyone access, and priority is given to people visiting family over tourists.

For U.S. Border Patrol agents, balancing the security needs with the needs of visitors is complex. “Imperial Beach has a history of high illegal activity. The proximity to the public roads, beach area, ocean and weather factors all contribute to the area being used for illegal activity,” says Robert Reedy, San Diego Sector Border Community liaison agent.

Reedy continues: “The challenges, as you can imagine, are security, the mix of public and illegal activity, and environmental issues as well. We get criminal activity and people taking advantage of the public access for illegal activity and [attempting] to blend in with the regular public. We do allow many different events and activities in the Circle, like border yoga, multiple music festivals, binational mass, etc., that permit more people than the minimum when asked [for] in advance: that way we can staff the appropriate amount of agents.”

The community group, Friends of Friendship Park, is working hard to make changes. Its goal is to create a future where the public will have unrestricted access to the park, and visitors will be able to touch each other. The group is currently working on plans for a park redesign that will be modeled after the Peace Arch Park at the U.S.-–Canada border.

We are experiencing a time like no other when our country is divided on topics like border security and immigration. Still, there is hope. Rael says, “The use of the wall as an armature for infrastructural and social improvements along the border could increase adjacent property values, as well as the quality of life on both sides of the border — a necessary step toward immigration reform,” keeping in mind that “the grander the walls, the greater our inability to discuss, negotiate and resolve common challenges or problems.”

For our border park managers, the potential for a shift in thinking and reconsideration of the role of our nation’s borders opens the possibility for change and a new way of thinking about these parks. Partnerships across the borders, like those seen at Big Bend National Park, may enable more successful conservation, protection and visitation efforts.

Like our communities, each park is different and unique with both positive and negative aspects, but the underlying goal, as with all our parks, is to share these special places with the public.

Paula Jacoby-Garrett is a Freelance Writer based in Las Vegas, Nevada.