Monument presents a management morass

In Arizona’s Ironwood Forest, recreationists, ranchers and illegal immigrants vie for space

  • PRICKLY PLAYGROUND: A saguaro stands tall before Ragged Top Mountain in Arizona's Ironwood Forest National Monument

    Chris Tincher, BLM

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "Change comes slowly to Escalante country."

TUCSON, Ariz. — When President Bill Clinton’s pen stroke created the Ironwood Forest National Monument on the edge of this desert city, it received a relatively warm welcome from many residents here. But if Ironwood has offered one lesson since then, it’s that with the West’s population on the rise, even a monument with public support can turn into a hornet’s nest.

Clinton’s proclamation, delivered on June 9, 2000, gave new protection to one of the most biologically diverse sections of the Sonoran Desert — a vulnerable ecosystem that has been steadily encroached on by suburbia. But it’s also made the monument’s craggy mountains and ancient trees more popular with both locals and out-of-state tourists, raising fears that the new monument will be “loved to death.”

Some visitors come to Ironwood to ride 4x4s, off-road vehicles and dirt bikes. Others come for target practice with handguns and high-powered rifles. These activities don’t mix well, and even relatively low-impact activities, such as hiking, may soon be restricted to protect the monument’s rare wildlife species.

As Ironwood approaches its third birthday, the Bureau of Land Management is just now preparing to draft its management plan for the 129,000-acre monument. The agency says it will stick to its multiple-use tradition, attempting to balance environmental protection with the increasing demand for public access. But that may be easier said than done.

“There are no cookbook solutions or quick fixes to these things,” says monument manager Tony Herrell.

Competing uses

As with the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, Ironwood will continue to host some livestock grazing; Clinton’s declaration preserved current grazing leases and continues to regulate them by existing laws. But with more visitors, ranchers may have a more difficult time.

One immediate threat to ranchers is local residents and their guns. Stray bullets have defoliated hillsides, whizzed by ranchers and prompted calls for a total ban on shooting at Ironwood. Rancher Jesus Arvizu, whose family settled in the area in 1847, has put up “No Shooting” signs only to see them shot down. He says 24 of his cattle have been shot in recent months.

“I’m not against hunting or anything,” says Arvizu, who ranches about 40,000 acres within Ironwood, “but when you’re just out here drinking beers and shooting up signs, you call that safe?” Another unresolved issue is how much grazing to allow on monument land designated as critical habitat for the endangered pygmy owl, a species that has stalled development in parts of urban Tucson (HCN, 10/22/01: Pygmy Owls lose one in court).

Hikers, too, may have to make concessions for imperiled wildlife, such as the desert bighorn sheep. Many environmental activists support closing popular hiking trails that go through areas where the sheep breed and lamb, pointing out that sheep herds in nearby mountains have suffered after hikers and their dogs moved in.

Regulations on recreation might help the bighorn sheep, but other management restrictions in high-profile areas like the monument can sometimes hurt the species, says Brian Dolan of the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society. In Tucson’s signature mountain range, the Santa Catalinas, opposition to prescribed burning allowed brush to grow thicker, creating hiding places for predators and contributing to the local bighorn herd’s demise, he says.

“I can just see the uproar if we want to do prescribed burns of ironwood trees in Ironwood National Monument,” Dolan says. “We’re going to get into the mindset that we need overly restrictive preservation measures, and end up doing more harm than good.”

Another kind of road war

So far, local BLM officials have earned praise from environmentalists for taking conservation seriously. The BLM is forcing the Phoenix-based Asarco’s Silver Bell mine, which is nearly surrounded by Ironwood, to remove an illegal road, pipeline and power line from the monument and revegetate the area. Asarco had asked for a land swap that would have given it 400 acres of monument land.

But activists are getting mixed messages from Washington. Clinton’s Ironwood proclamation limited off-road vehicles and other motorized uses to existing roads. Interior Secretary Gale Norton has since given individual monument managers more discretion over road closures, making it possible for the BLM to keep user-created roads and trails open to the public.

That may be a significant change at Ironwood. The monument already has more than 600 miles of roads that fragment wildlife habitat, says Julie Sherman of the Sierra Club. “Our argument is that nothing that was created since the proclamation should be there,” she says. Parties involved in the road issue say some routes will inevitably be closed in the management plan, especially redundant roads and those crossing sensitive habitat. But the BLM is unlikely to close all user-created routes, as some environmentalists would like.

Many of the newest roads have been created by one of Ironwood’s biggest, but illegal, user groups: people coming north from Mexico. Although Ironwood is nearly 60 miles from the border, it lies at the north end of a popular route through the Tohono O’odham reservation. Much of the illegal human traffic shifted to routes such as this after enforcement was stepped up in border cities in the mid-1990s.

Immigrants and drug smugglers are increasingly using the monument as a transfer point, blazing new roads that are later used by legal visitors. “It’s very innocent for anyone to come out there later and travel on one of those road established by smugglers,” says Ironwood manager Herrell.

Ironwood has just two law enforcement officers to patrol its 295 square miles. They’ve been shot at and had their vehicles rammed by smugglers, Herrell says. Additional officers have sometimes been brought in, but monument officials want more help on a permanent basis.

But some local environmentalists are dubious about how much support monument managers will receive from Washington. “There hasn’t been a follow-up by the Bush administration to support management of these monuments,” says Daniel Patterson, desert ecologist for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. “Their vision would be for the monuments to exist on paper only.”

Mitch Tobin is the environment writer at the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.

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