Will bulldozers roll into Arizona's Eden?

Rancher's wilderness inholding caught in a decade-long feud

  • Locator map of Arrastra mountain Wilderness inArizona

    Diane Sylvain

PEEPLES CANYON, Ariz. - Alaskans Erik and Tina Barnes made their fortunes working as commercial fishermen, ski instructors, veterinarians and pilots. But they'd always wanted to run a ranch. In 1990, they found their opportunity: The Santa Maria Ranch, straddling a river of the same name just outside the Arrastra Mountain Wilderness Area in central Arizona, was not only stunningly beautiful, it also had an access road, an airstrip for their Cessna 180 and proximity to shopping in Wickenburg, about 45 miles south.

Intending to ranch part-time and continue the family fishing business, they paid $350,000 for 980 acres on the river and a 40-acre inholding along a wilderness canyon.

"It suits us better than living in a trailer park in Apache Junction or in Sun City West," says Tina Barnes.

But the Barneses' last decade on the ranch has been far from peaceful. Their plans to use heavy construction equipment to fix up old roads and livestock watering tanks in the wilderness have run up against one of the nation's top anti-grazing activists. The ensuing legal battle, which could set a precedent for how the Bureau of Land Management manages wilderness, has taken as many turns as an old river, and it is still unresolved.

"We have to remind ourselves not to stay angry," says Erik Barnes, 67. "My assumption 10 years ago was that they would take care of the inholding problem and the maintenance problems prior to declaring this wilderness. The problems are the result of Joe Feller. Every time the BLM has made a decision in favor of the rancher, he's found a way to stop it. It's unfair."

Man on a mission

Joe Feller, of course, sees things differently. The Arizona State University law professor and activist discovered the Arrastra Wilderness a year before Congress designated it in November of 1990. Feller was looking for a riverside grazing issue to sink his teeth into, he acknowledges. After learning from a top BLM official in Kingman that the bureau was doing a management plan for another grazing allotment next to the Barneses' Santa Maria Ranch, Feller dove in. Drawn to steep-walled Peeples Canyon in the heart of the Arrastra Mountains, enchanted by the area's curious blend of junipers, Joshua trees and saguaros, Feller, 48, soon took the first of approximately 50 hikes in the area.

Feller wasn't alone in his attraction to Peeple's Canyon. In 1990, Arizona Highways described it "as one of the wonders of public land in Arizona." In 1994, Phoenix Magazine called it "Arizona's answer to Eden." BLM reports label the canyon "a unique desert oasis" that is "among the rarest and most productive wildlife habitat."

Feller learned that the Barneses wanted to bring bulldozers and backhoes into the canyon to improve one mile of a 7.5-mile stretch of dirt roads. The key stretch was 1,000 feet of a narrow, World War II-era access road that slices through hills covered with saguaro and prickly pear, and leads to the Barneses' 40-acre inholding. Erik and Tina Barnes and three other ranchers also wanted to rebuild and repair 15 abandoned and rotting livestock watering tanks. The BLM had never approved a project of this magnitude in a wilderness.

Feller discovered that the jeep road to the inholding had been closed shortly after the Arrastra became a wilderness, and that it hadn't been used since 1980. In a series of legal briefs Feller helped research for the National Wildlife Federation, the group contended that the road-grading would violate a Wilderness Act ban on new roads in wilderness areas. They said the bulldozing would create long-lasting scars, and that the ensuing cattle grazing would devastate sensitive springs.

"The springs will then become livestock concentration points, and their value as oases for wildlife and recreationists will be destroyed as they are trampled, their riparian vegetation is stripped away and they are filled with cattle manure and urine," one brief argued.

The BLM's environmental assessment, completed in 1996, acknowledged that the road "would look maintained and appear to casual observers as a road receiving regular and continuous use." Increased noise could drive raptors such as peregrine falcons and zone-tailed hawks off their nests, and possibly lead them to abandon the canyon.

But the agency also said that denying the proposal might make forage in the area unavailable to livestock and force the owners to abandon their water rights to the canyon, thus reducing the value of the inholding and the ranch. Other development, such as rental cabins or other eco-tourism services, could replace ranching there, the Bureau warned.

John R. Christensen, field manager of BLM's Kingman office, says Congress gave the Bureau a "difficult set of cards to play with," with a law to manage this as wilderness while still allowing grazing: "It's hard to make those two mesh, but they wanted to allow that to happen. We're trying to have a minimum effect, yet still allow livestock grazing to continue."

The Forest Service dealt with a similar dilemma in 1996 in Catron County, N.M. There, the agency stopped a rancher from building 15 watering tanks in the Gila Wilderness after five years of lobbying and litigation by local activists (HCN, 3/4/96: The Diamond Bar saga goes on - and on).

But despite protests of Feller and environmental groups, in 1996 the BLM approved the Arrastra Wilderness projects. In November 2000, though, the outgoing Clinton administration's Interior Department put the ruling on hold before rescinding it two months later.

Then, last fall, the Bush administration's Interior Department again authorized the road and water tank construction. But Barnes still can't start his engines. In December, with both sides pressing lawsuits, a federal judge ordered that an existing stay precluding ground disturbance would continue until the court makes a final decision.

Measures of last resort

Erik Barnes says that even if he gains access to his inholding, it won't make up for the lost decade. He says that he has not made a cent at the ranch, because his cattle numbers are one-fourth what they could be with road and water improvements. According to BLM's environmental assessment, though, Barnes likely would earn only $5,000 a year, even if allowed to make his improvements.

Barnes also chafes at the regulations the BLM will impose limiting motor vehicle access to the inholding to 80 to 150 days the first year and even shorter amounts of time in the future.

"The assumption that most Americans have is that if there's a road to your property, you can drive to it," he says.

Feller agrees with Barnes that the federal government has been slow to make decisions, but insists that delays don't mean environmentalists should give up their right to challenge decisions they believe are wrong. Walking down a rutted dirt road through the wilderness toward Barnes' inholding, Feller beams when he spots palo verde and mesquite trees and yellow grasses growing on the now-unused road:

"I try to imagine a bulldozer here and that is not right," he says. "To me, this is wilderness."

But Barnes threatens to build a resort in his inholding if the case keeps dragging. The BLM offered him $200,000 for the 40 acres a few years ago. He sought $1.2 million and today contends his inholding is worth $7 million as Arrastra's "crown jewel." He envisions customers riding horseback into Peeples Canyon, just as they ride mules into the Grand Canyon:

"If we were to do that, it would be pure and simple because of the hassle Feller has caused us."

Tony Davis writes from Tucson, Arizona.


  • Joe Feller, 480/965-3964;
  • Thomas Kelly, Prescott attorney for Erik Barnes, 928/445-5484;
  • BLM Kingman field office, 928/692-4400.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Tony Davis

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