PHOENIX - The need was evident. Long-present grazing fences between Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands in central and southern Arizona and the Tohono O’odham Nation were in disrepair.
Time and the elements had an effect on the mostly barbed-wire barriers. Worse, smugglers of drugs and humans cut the fences or bowled through them in their push across Native American and BLM-managed lands to Interstate 8.
BLM land managers and law enforcement rangers knew the fences needed to be fixed. They also knew that they needed a clear picture of where the damaged sites were. Someone needed to lay eyes on every inch of the fences – not an easy task in the rugged terrain of the Ironwood Forest and Sonoran Desert National Monuments.
Enter BLM Ranger Cynthia Barrett and volunteer Randy Helm. Both are avid horse lovers and both have adopted mustangs that once ran wild on BLM land.
Barrett volunteered to ride the fence. She enlisted Helm to go with her.
“I had horses and it was something that I wanted to do,” Barrett said.
Both Barrett and Helm have other horses in addition to the mustangs. One of Barrett’s three horses was used by smugglers and then abandoned on the Sonoran Desert National Monument. The horse was rescued and put in the hands of the Arizona Department of Agriculture, which is the standard policy in such cases. The state put the horse up for adoption and Barrett got it.
Helm has a quarterhorse in addition to his mustang. They used all their horses on the rides, but it was the mustangs and Barrett’s adopted horse Valley that gave them the best service.
“They have the most stamina,” Barrett said of Valley and her mustang Rio. “For the longer rides, I usually take them. They move faster across the terrain.”
For Helm, his mustang Major was the literal workhorse. “He just keeps going,” Helm said. “I think on some of those rides, the horse had more endurance than I did.”
For both the humans and the horses, the days were exhausting. Barrett and Helm would start early, loading the horses in a trailer and then driving two hours or more to where they left off the day before. Sometimes they could drive right to the spot, on others they had to ride 3-4 miles before they could start the survey.
“We would ride 6-10 hours a day. That’s in addition to the time it takes to drive to the site and caring for the horses,” Barrett said.
“By the end of the day you’re ready to get out of the saddle,” Helm said. “We had a few 15-16 hour days, total, with the drive and the ride combined. There were some long days in there.”
For Helm, those were days without pay. All of his work was as an unpaid volunteer. He has long had ties to the BLM. He often does wild horse clinics, taking the wild animals from gathers and getting them so they can be touched by humans and led on a rope. Since completing the fence ride, Helm has taken a job with the Arizona Department of Corrections. He is training inmates to care for animals and to break mustangs and burros adopted from the BLM.
Despite, the long hours Barrett wasn’t complaining. “I enjoy it,” she said. “Being able to ride horses (on the job) is an added bonus. I see areas that I’m not normally seeing. Usually I’m patrolling (in a vehicle) on roads. This gives me a different perspective.”
But there was more to the job than riding in the desert. Barrett and Helm noted damage to the fence. They recorded GPS data and took pictures of each location. They also noted water caches and areas of excessive trash, likely sites of illegal operations.
“We’ve seen a lot of illegal roads, a lot of places where backpackers (carrying loads of marijuana) are coming through and where the illegal aliens are coming through,” Barrett said.
Barrett, as a law enforcement ranger, was armed on the horse patrols. She did not encounter any suspected smugglers on the horse patrols. “I’m sure that some can see us and are either avoiding us or are resting in places where we can’t see them,” she said.
She noted that law enforcement was not the main mission of the operation. “Our purpose at this time is to catalog breaks in the fence,” she said.
The BLM is working with the Tohono O’odham Nation on agreements to repair the fence and to do regular patrols for mutual benefit.
The BLM is working with the Tohono O’odham Nation on agreements to repair the fence and do regular patrols for mutual benefit. This is one of the projects BLM is undertaking as part of Operation Reclaim Our Arizona Monuments (ROAM), which aims to repair damage caused by illegal border-related activities on the Ironwood Forest and Sonoran Desert National Monuments.
With the fence in good repair, new breaks can be monitored. Knowing where the breaks are will give managers insight into smugglers’ strategy and adjust to thwart them. “It’s a cat and mouse game,” said Rich Hanson, manager of the Sonoran Desert National Monument.