Image credit: © KEVIN DAHL/NPCA

Winter 2020

A Death in Organ Pipe

By Nicolas Brulliard
Winter 2020: A Death in Organ Pipe

If a cactus falls … It’s good to have a video camera on hand.

Kevin Dahl was showing a radio reporter around Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument one early October day when the two stumbled across some border activity: A crew working on relocating cactuses — apparently carefully — to clear a path for a section of wall along the border with Mexico. The wall, which has been one of President Donald Trump’s top priorities for years, has been extremely controversial from the start. It is projected to run hundreds of miles — including 30 miles along Organ Pipe’s southern boundary — and cost nearly $20 billion, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.

After Dahl, NPCA’s senior program manager in Arizona, brought the reporter to the park’s Quitobaquito Springs, which could be harmed by the construction of the wall, they drove back to the border and came upon quite a different scene. Gone were the gloves and the burlap sack to protect the cactuses’ roots. This time, a bulldozer was plowing right through an erect saguaro and scraping the ground clean. “They’re wiping out a strip of life. They’re creating a dead zone,” said Dahl, a botanist who’s written two books about the plants of the Southwest. “It’s just heartbreaking.”

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Dahl grabbed his phone and documented the destruction from his car window. Later that day, he posted his photos and video footage on Facebook, and almost immediately, his images went viral. The story was picked up by countless publications. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, who earlier had declined to speak to the reporter accompanying Dahl, organized a press conference and issued a statement claiming that only unhealthy cactuses were not being relocated. Dahl was not convinced. “The saguaro I saw would have been happy there for decades and decades,” he said.

Critics, including NPCA, say that the administration has waived crucial environmental laws to pave the way for the wall and is funding construction with money allocated for other purposes. They also argue that the wall is not an appropriate way to increase border security and is causing irreparable damage to natural and archaeological resources. Several entities, including the U.S. House of Representatives and the state of California, have sued the administration to halt the wall’s construction.

Dahl said he had no idea his videos and photos would be published so widely, but he thinks one reason the footage resonated with so many people is that it was a saguaro — perhaps the most humanlike cactus — that was under attack.

“They seem helpless,” Dahl said. “They have arms, but they can’t strike back.”

About the author

  • Nicolas Brulliard Senior Editor

    Nicolas is a journalist and former geologist who joined NPCA in November 2015. He writes and edits online content for NPCA and serves as senior editor of National Parks magazine.

This article appeared in the Winter 2020 issue

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