Phoenix District completes major trash cleanup effort

Story and video by Chris Wonderly, Public Affairs Specialist, Phoenix District Office

Phoenix District staff recently completed a major trash cleanup of the Sonoran Desert National Monument. The monument spans more than 486,000 acres of Sonoran Desert landscape 60 miles southwest of Phoenix and includes three congressionally designated wilderness areas. The last large-scale cleanup of the monument was in 2015. Over the years, trash and abandoned equipment related to illegal border activity accumulated in remote areas of the monument.

View from above of desert with many saguaro cacti and lots of trash on the ground
Trash left in remote parts of the Sonoran Desert National Monument. Photo: A.J. Whiteman, BLM

A district-wide team worked together to accomplish the cleanup. “This was the definition of collaboration across all field offices and programs, including fire, park rangers, law enforcement, and maintenance,” said Acting Administrative Officer Hawk Thul.

Before the two-day cleanup operation, law enforcement, maintenance, and park ranger staff made several trips to the monument to locate, bag, and organize the trash to make it easier to remove all at once. One cleanup site was in the Table Top Wilderness. The large amount of trash in the wilderness was affecting the natural environment and visitor experience. To determine the least impactful method to remove the trash from the wilderness area, the BLM completed a Minimum Requirements Analysis, and determined a helicopter was the preferred method. “These areas are very difficult to access, even by foot,” said Acting Field Manager Katie White Bull. “Having support from our fire helicopter made this cleanup possible.”

A helicopter in the air with a rope hanging from it which is attached to an ATV
Weaver Mountain Helitack carries an abandoned ATV from remote parts of the Sonoran Desert National Monument. Photo: A.J. Whiteman, BLM

The Phoenix District’s Weaver Mountain Helitack Module, based in Wickenburg, provided staff and helicopter support to remove trash. During the two-day cleanup operation, the helicopter carried fire personnel to collect and prepare the trash for removal by helicopter. Since the area south of Interstate 8 is a known smuggling area, law enforcement staff provided security at the cleanup sites and helibase.

Helicopter in the air with a rope hanging from it. ATV is about to be dropped on to a trailer
Weaver Mountain Helitack crew helps load abandoned ATV into a trailer for removal. Photo: Chris Wonderly, BLM

The helicopter sling loaded nets with trash bags to the helibase where the trash could be loaded into trucks. It also removed an abandoned ATV that would have been nearly impossible to remove any other way. “This came off better than I dreamed it was going to,” said Phoenix District Chief Ranger Jake Szympruch. “I think we got 2,800 pounds of trash plus the ATV.”

People load barbed wire and other trash into a trailer. There is a big pile of rocks and a large pile of barbed wire just behind the trailer. Trucks are parked off to the side and the sky is blue.
Phoenix District fire, maintenance, park ranger, and Lower Sonoran Field Office staff load barbed wire and other debris removed from the Sonoran Desert National Monument. Photo: Chris Wonderly, BLM

Now that the removal is complete, BLM staff will continue to monitor activity on the monument to see what changes occur in coming years.

Desert with many saguaro and various other plants. Many trash bags filled with trash are piled up on the ground.
Trash ready for removal from the Sonoran Desert National Monument Photo: Paul Zohovetz, BLM

When you enjoy your public lands, you can help keep our public lands clean. Pack out your trash and leave no trace. When visiting the monument, be aware that the southern part of the monument is a corridor for drug and human smugglers. Be alert for illegal activities and law enforcement operations. 

Learn More:

More about the Sonoran Desert National Monument

Download a map and brochure.

Fire Management Feature: Arizona’s Helitack Modules

Phoenix District Office

BLM Outdoor Ethics

Know Before You Go: Outdoor Safety

BLM Wilderness and Wilderness Study Areas