Would you visit a National Monument if the most foreign thing you saw was people on ladders painting the flowers with pollen?
On our recent visit to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument we could not help to be taken aback at just how lush, green and full of life this desert forest is. As most know, or think of, the desert as a dry dusty place where there is abundant sun, little rain and is short on bio-diversity. The Sonoran is the exception, especially within the park. In just a short walk we saw saguaro, organ pipe, hedgehog, and coleville’s cactus, desert ironwood, palo verde trees, quail, flickers, gila woodpeckers, cactus wren, jack rabbits, cottontails and much to my surprise deer! This is a desert rich in variety. One can only imagine that this continues to the south since this park is at the northern range of many of these plants and trees.
After only spending a couple of days there it seemed incredible that this little pocket has even survived all that has been thrown at it over the last 200 years. At a time when ranching was just about the only way to make a living in the west a few tough souls attempted to do just that however failed due to lack of year round water sources. Not surprisingly the cattle severely damaged the natural eco system. Over the years since grazing the desert has had a nice bounce back. Driving in from the north west we passed a large mine outside of the town of Ajo, AZ. This mine was so large the tailings create their own mountain plateau. Shortly after passing the mine driving towards Why, AZ you start to pass signs for the Barry Goldwater air force bombing range. The American military bombs the desert because there is “nothing out there”. It was not unusual to hear the jets flying past the park even in just our short visit. To the south, about 7 miles from the entrance to the park, is the Mexican/American border. I’m not going to cover the politics here but, due to several factors this means that the open desert is an opportunistic place for those seeking better pay or good money trafficking into America. Human and vehicle traffic through the park created roads and damaged the eco system in several places. Fairly recently the park put in a 30 mile stretch of vehicle barricades that still allows for animals, including the endangered Sonoran Pronghorn to still pass through. Due to these immigration attempts and trafficking the presence of border patrol is to be expected. Within the park there is border patrol unit with horses, ATVs, drones and a helicopter to patrol the park itself. All of this is just to give you an idea of what this little plot of land is up against.
It’s easy to put all that out of your mind when you look at this beautiful place, especially the pictures of the desert in full bloom. A majority of the plants take the monsoon rains of the summer to blossom. This includes the namesake Organ Pipe Cactus. These cacti can live up to 150 years and their first blossom shows up at around 35 years of age. This has been an interesting fact to mull over because I myself am 35 years old. The organ pipe cactus has white flowers and blooms only at night giving off a sweet scent. Come mid morning the next day and the flower is closing up its pollen shop. The lesser long nose bat uses this time in the summer to travel north to have and grow their babies at a roost in the park. Feeding on the pollen and fruit of both the Saguaro and the Organ Pipe cactus while cross pollinating the plants. There is an excellent graph showing this relationship found in the park newspaper here: http://www.nps.gov/orpi/planyourvisit/upload/http___imrcms-nps-doi-net_orpi_planyourvisit_loader.pdf . The Organ Pipe is not listed as endangered but the bat is. Like the good and wise John Muir is quoted “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”. If there is no bat to do the heavy lifting of pollinating the cactus how long will it take the cactus to die off? I heard a story about an apple growing region in China where they use such toxic pesticides it killed all the bees. No bees, no apples? Nope, instead there are people who are now employed to take to the trees with cups filled with pollen and paint brushes to do the pollinating the bees did for free. In true Chinese diligence they pollinate all the flowers of every tree. The human pollination process is said to have increased the production of apples by 30%. Can the trees sustain that heavy of production? What if there are subtleties that the bees and bats can smell that makes them skip over less ideal flowers? Just like a female bird selects for health and vitality in her male suitors perhaps the bats select the best flowers. The fact is that these plants and bats co evolved and most likely need each other to survive. Human interference might temporarily improve upon nature but, will alter it in ways that we cannot foresee. This is a common story throughout the world and this is only one example. However, I can’t help feel that my take away from this particular story is the connection between our bombing practice just north and the desperation of our neighbors to the south. It’s hard for me to decide who causes more damage to this sensitive desert eco-system. It’s important to remember that nature is not something that happens “over there” while we lives our lives “over here”. Our tax dollars both own the open land of the federal government and the military that is tasked to protect it. Americans have bought the gift that is large tracks of land set aside for our enjoyment but, nature does not begin and end at their borders.