TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) – The majestic saguaro cactus may be Arizona’s best-known desert plant, but at the Ironwood Forest National Monument, it is a gnarled, hardy tree that commands attention.
The ironwood tree that lends its name to the monument is vital for the survival of hundreds of plants and animals. Like the saguaro, the ironwood grows throughout the region, but has a large concentration in the monument that rises out of the Sonoran Desert about 25 miles northwest of Tucson.
The ironwood may be ordinary in appearance without its lavender blooms, but its role as a nurturer is substantial. Its dense canopy shelters mammals and reptiles, owls and hawks perch freely on it, and the fertile soil beneath it promotes diverse vegetation for many years. The tree can live a long time, some 800 years and beyond, only in the Sonoran Desert.
“That’s a pretty special plant, the ironwood tree, for many species,” said Carolyn Campbell, director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection.
In the late 1990s, the group joined a local push to seek federal designation for the area to protect its rich biodiversity and archaeological sites from development. The coalition viewed the habitat as crucial for sensitive species such as the ferruginous pygmy-owl, which was then listed as an endangered species, Campbell said.
On June 9, 2000, President Bill Clinton created the 129,000-acre national monument using his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act.
Since Ironwood Forest received the federal designation after 1996 and it spans more than 100,000 acres, it is subject to the Trump administration’s ongoing review of such national monuments for a possible roll-back.
Three other monuments in Arizona also are included: The Sonoran Desert, Grand Canyon – Parashant and Vermilion Cliffs.
In a rebuke to the undertaking, the Pima County Board of Supervisors on May 16 approved a resolution 3-2 reiterating support for the monument’s designation and outlining concerns about the review’s potential impact.
“Should the Ironwood Forest National Monument be eliminated or reduced in size, Pima County could expect less tourism based on outdoor recreation, fewer visitors, diminished economic benefits, and less in state and local tax receipts and benefits to the local economy,” the resolution states.
The two supervisors who opposed the resolution, Ally Miller and Steve Christy, respectively characterized the resolution as “a swipe at the Trump administration” and “crying foul before you’re harmed.”
Local government officials aren’t the only ones worried about the implications of the administration’s action. Environmental groups, American Indian tribes and other critics across the country are pushing back.
“This review is a little bit more than disconcerting,” said Tom Hannagan, president of the Friends of Ironwood Forest. “To the extent that anyone wants to change the Antiquities Act – that has to be done in Congress. It’s been challenged in the courts multiple times and the courts have always found the president’s authority to name these monuments to be valid.”
The nonprofit organization, which advocates for the monument’s preservation through public outreach and hands-on restoration projects, is urging its more than 1,000 members to lobby their elected representatives to keep intact the Ironwood Forest’s monument designation.
Conservationists call the national monument a microcosm of the Sonoran Desert that sprawls across large swaths of Arizona, California and Northwestern Mexico.
“In a relatively small space, you’ve got mountain ranges and plains, so you’ve got the kind of geologic situation there that you have in the Sonoran Desert but it’s all concentrated in one place,” Hannagan said.
A biological study conducted by the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson and used by Pima County, whose county seat is Tucson, to pursue the federal designation documented 560 plant species. Many are rare and at least one, the Nichol Turk’s head cactus, is endangered.
“When you go out there and you look it over and you see the plant life up and down the mountain slopes into various ridges of other mountains north and south, it’s just beautiful,” Hannagan said.
Among the many animals that roam the monument, including some that are threatened or endangered, are bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, chuckwallas and the lesser long-nosed bat.
Numerous archaeological sites containing petroglyphs and Indian artifacts are scattered across Ironwood Forest. Remnants of foundations where the ancient Hohokam tribe built villages and campsites offer a window into prehistoric life. Their descendants are believed to be the Tohono O’odham, whose land borders the monument.
“There are some places where you have to be careful where you walk because there are so many artifacts, pieces of pottery and stone chips and tools of one kind or another,” Hannagan said.
Three sites within the monument are included in the National Register of Historic Places: the Mission of Santa Ana del Chiquiburitac, Los Robles Archeological District and Cocoraque Butte Archeological District.
Jim Avramis, a member of the Friends of Ironwood Forest board, said he fell in love with the monument when he first visited years ago.
He has twice hiked to the summit of Ragged Top, the distinctive peak in the heart of the monument that offers a sweeping view of the dense ironwoods, saguaros, palo verde trees and other stalwart plants that thrive in the arid environment.
Although some livestock grazing continues to be managed within Ironwood Forest, Avramis said it hasn’t altered the monument’s natural state.
“It’s still very open and very pristine,” he said. “When you get out there you get a sense that you’re definitely away from the city.”
That may be partly because there are no manicured trails, no amenities and no visitor center. In rainy weather, the dirt roads are often impassable.
Lately, Avramis said he has been going to the monument twice a month to help out with restoration work. He is one of many volunteers from various groups throughout the area who help the U.S. Bureau of Land Management erase damage to the monument.
The volunteers remove invasive buffelgrass, do plant inventory and pick up trash. In past years, rampant smuggling and recreational target shooting ravaged parts of the landscape.
But since illegal activity has dropped in recent years and target shooting was banned in 2013, the monument is a cleaner place, Avramis said.
Years-long restoration work on a runway that a mining entrepreneur built illegally also is proving fruitful and “looking rather good now” with new vegetation, he noted.
With that in mind, Avramis traveled to Washington, D.C., last week to try to persuade members of the Arizona congressional delegation to throw their support behind the monument that encompasses Pima and Pinal counties.
“I’m afraid that if the review goes the wrong way, it’s going to impact the nature of the monument and how pristine it is,” Avramis said. “And we’ll take that away from future generations.”