Tough but threatened

  The ironwood tree, long a symbol of desert abundance, may soon be protected by a new national monument in southern Arizona. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt toured an ironwood forest near Tucson in mid-March, and expressed interest in protecting about 71,000 acres of BLM land.

A recent report by the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson says the tree is imperiled by Sunbelt development and overlogging. Ironwood trees live for centuries, and museum researchers discovered that the species is ecologically important throughout the Sonoran Desert; in one area northwest of Tucson, they found that ironwood trees coexist with 674 plant and animal species.

"That's an extraordinarily high number for a single site," " says Gary Paul Nabhan, an author of the report and the Desert Museum's science and conservation director. The trees have been a part of human life in the border region for centuries. Indian tribes use ironwood beans and seeds as food; its flowers, leaves, bark and roots as medicine; and its wood to make rosary beads and crosses for religious ceremonies. Hundreds of thousands of the slow-growing trees still exist in five U.S. and Mexican states, but their habitat needs protection, says Nabhan. Right now, ironwood trees have less legal protection in the United States than they do in Mexico. Since 1994, the Mexican government has protected the tree and required permits for those wishing to cut them for fuel or charcoal, but while Arizona and California also require permits to own, possess or transport ironwood, Nabhan says enforcement has been weak.

A summary of the 100-page Desert Ironwood Primer can be found on the museum's Web site at\_primer.htm. A full-length version is available for $10; to order or for more information, call the museum at 520/883-1380.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Tony Davis

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