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  Sierra Magazine
  March/April 2004
Table of Contents
  FEATURES: Wild America
Our Great Estate
Land Lingo
The Assault on Wild America
Beneath Wyoming Stars
Stuck on the Desert
Deep in the Georgia Woods
In the Rockies' Wild Heart
Experts Agree!
Interview: Yvon Chouinard
Ways & Means
Let's Talk
One Small Step
Lay of the Land
Good Going
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Our Great Estate | Land Lingo | The Assault on Wild America | Red Desert: BLM Public Land | Cabeza Prieta | Chattahoochee National Forest | Cabinet Mountains Wilderness

Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge

Stuck on the Desert

by Gary Paul Nabhan

Red DesertIn a quarter-century of hiking stinking hot deserts, I’ve found Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge to be the ideal place for getting stuck in the heat. Harboring the third-largest wilderness area in the Lower 48, it’s a refuge for the wild, be they living or dead. This is a place that, by its very nature, seems out to destroy all the dune buggies that cross its path—though the off-road-vehicle crowd does its hard-throttle damnedest to prove nature wrong. The refuge’s 860,000-plus acres, straddling Arizona’s border with Mexico, are like some hybrid between an obstacle course of volcanic chaos and an endless sand trap. Its dunes are riddled by burrows loaded with kangaroo rats and sidewinders. Its razor-edged lava flows are pockmarked with sudden sinkholes, and its silt-flat playas project mirages that turn into quagmires and burst with thorny wildflowers whenever there is a monsoonal downpour.

Maybe it will happen tonight, just after you discover that your last canteen was accidentally kicked over. Or maybe a decade from now, when they find your bleached bones next to your sun-warped global positioning system. This is a good refuge to spend your life in, or to spend an eternity in, rotting away as slowly as one can.

As I’ve demonstrated to eminent naturalists from Ann and Susan Zwinger to Terry Tempest Williams, it’s easy to get stuck in Cabeza Prieta. As they quickly learned, it’s also easy to get stuck on Cabeza Prieta, its stark beauty embodied in lily-white dunes, chocolaty volcanic ranges, and immense powdery blue skies. It’s also easy to get stuck by all of its cactus spines shadowing the ground in patterns left by slowly rotting carcasses other than your own, in this case, those of giant saguaro and barrel cacti. Or stuck on the thorns of ancient ironwood trees, whose wood is so hard that they stand in rigor mortis for centuries after their last photosynthetic gasp. Or stuck on the horns of sand-loving lizards, desert bighorn sheep, and endangered Sonoran pronghorn.

In Cabeza Prieta, you are in a perfect position to see what nature does on its own—as well as what people do to it. For instance, you can observe the tenacious creosote bush, the undefeated champion of the stinking hot desert. That bush may look leafless and lifeless for months on end, but then, in the final round, when a fluke storm appears, it rebounds and takes the crown once more.

Of course, Cabeza Prieta’s designation as a wildlife refuge in 1939 did not erase the evidence of previous human foibles. In fact, part of its charm is that mishaps remain painfully and sometimes hilariously evident for decades. My favorite specter of this sort persisted in the years following the cattle drives across El Camino del Diablo, which runs through the refuge. Those drives were aimed at feeding the miners, hookers, and hawkers congregated in California for the gold rush, but they were not always successful in surviving the waterless stretches of Cabeza Prieta. When one entire herd perished on a cholla-studded stretch of the Devil’s Highway, a cowboy stood the withered carcasses up on their four legs on either side of the trail to greet future passersby.

Since cattle drives didn’t pan out, folks turned their attention to learning how some of the native wildlife could survive and even thrive in the same waterless conditions that so easily made beef jerky on the hoof out of domesticated livestock. Some 300 species of vertebrate animals have been recorded in Cabeza Prieta over the last 75 years, and several of them are endangered elsewhere in their range. The refuge staff works with biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Arizona Game and Fish, and Mexico’s environment ministry to monitor, census, and recover the rarest of the rare that come and go from the refuge into Mexico.

Of course, the trouble is that other lives are coming and going as well, including drug runners, dune buggers, migrant laborers, and the U.S. government’s own border patrol. Despite constant educational efforts by the refuge staff, there are far too many vehicles that think nothing of heading off across fragile biological soil crusts. Off-road vehicles can’t get everywhere in Cabeza Prieta, but wherever they go, their scars persist for decades.

But it is not just Joe Six-Pack who leaves the road for no good reason. Sometimes GIs fail in their map-reading exercises in the adjacent Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, and end up stuck either in Cabeza Prieta or Sonora, Mexico. These off-road exploits disrupt calving for the dwindling herds of pronghorn, as do the Air Force’s practice bombing runs north of the refuge that cause flash fires where pronghorn and bighorn roam. A bombing range/endangered-species habitat was not what natural-resource managers had in mind when they coined the term "multiple use."

There’s not much hope that relief will come from higher up: The entire National Wildlife Refuge System has a $2 billion funding shortfall. (At least Cabeza Prieta has a staff; some 200 refuges have no on-site staff at all.)

And so, the Cabeza Prieta employees have their work cut out for them, with no respite in sight under George W. Bush. What they need to remember is that a lot of us are watching. Not only the living, but also the dead. Like author Ed Abbey, for starters, who is buried six feet under the refuge’s ground at an undisclosed location. He occasionally surfaces as a turkey vulture circling, a bighorn ram peeing on his grave, or a belch from the very belly of the earth itself. All those who abuse the refuge, be warned: There are a lot of ways to get you stuck out there so that you wish you’d never left the pavement.

Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, the third-largest refuge in the Lower 48, hugs the Arizona-Mexico border. This seemingly uninhabitable desert landscape is home to some 400 plant species and more than 300 wildlife species, including saguaro cacti and bighorn sheep.

Threats Because desert soils are fragile and form slowly, off-road-vehicle abuse is one of the biggest threats to wildlands in the Southwest. Many roads have been closed in Cabeza Prieta, but the rules are difficult to enforce—especially against drug smugglers—and border-patrol vehicles are exempted.

More Information Contact the refuge at 1611 North Second Ave., Ajo, AZ, 85321; (520) 387-6483; or on the Web at

Gary Paul Nabhan is the editor of Counting Sheep (University of Arizona, 1993), an anthology celebrating desert bighorn in the Sonoran Desert, and author of Singing the Turtles to Sea (University of California Press, 2003), which documents the ties between Mexico’s Seri people and their local desert and marine reptiles. Nabhan’s most recent book, Cross-Pollinations: The Marriage of Science and Poetry (Milkweed, 2004), follows his adventures with night-blooming cacti and hallucinogenic daturas in the desert.

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