MARICOPA, Ariz. (CN) – Few images call to mind the American Southwest like the saguaro cactus.
With green arms outstretched, twisting and turning, the towering saguaro paints a sharp silhouette in a desert landscape brimming with muted shades of browns and reds.
The iconic saguaro has prompted a number of federal actions over the years to protect the stately cactus found only in the Sonoran Desert, which spans over 100,000 square miles through Arizona, California and Mexico.
President Bill Clinton created the Sonoran Desert National Monument, about 60 miles southwest of Phoenix, by executive order in 2001 to serve as an example of what the Sonoran Desert could look like if untouched by the fast-growing urban sprawl of Phoenix.
The monument was one of 11 created by Clinton on Jan. 17, 2001, just days before the end of his presidency, in a move detractors saw as an attempt to leave a lasting environmental legacy behind.
“Individual saguaro plants are indeed magnificent, but a forest of these plants, together with the wide variety of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants that make up the forest community, is an impressive site to behold,” the order detailed.
Nearly two decades later, the Sonoran Desert National Monument’s creation has again been called into question, this time by the Trump administration.
Late last month, President Donald Trump ordered Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review all national monuments larger than 100,000 acres designated under the Antiquities Act since 1996.
The Sonoran Desert National Monument, spanning over 486,000 acres, is one of four Arizona monuments that fall under the administration’s review.
“When Clinton established it, it was designated not only for the saguaro cactus forest that it has, but it also has Native American relics like petroglyphs, and vegetation and wildlife,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee.
A dozen environmental organizations helped push for the monument’s creation then, citing the area’s biological diversity from stretches of saguaro forests to thickets of creosote bushes and ironwood and paloverde trees.
Archaeology Southwest, a nonprofit that supports preservation-based archaeology, has been involved with the monument since the very start.
“They are public lands to start with, lands that we are all connected to and have the right to travel to and use,” said Bill Doelle, president and chief executive officer of the Tucson-based group. “There is an amazing set of resources that are preserved in and adjacent to that area.”
Most of the land incorporated into the monument was already the protection of the Bureau of Land Management, which manages the monument.
The monument is home to a number of threatened and endangered species, including owls, tortoises, bighorn sheep and the lesser long-nosed bat. In January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed removing the bat from the protection of the Endangered Species Act after the population rebounded to 200,000 from only around 1,000 three decades ago.
The area also encompasses remnants of American Indian villages and rock art from the ancestors of the Maricopa, Quechan, Cocopah and Tohono O’odham tribes.
“It is unique, it is one of the most biologically diverse of the North American deserts,” Grijalva said.
While the landscape is unique, the Sonoran Desert National Monument has also faced a particular set of obstacles and problems.
Over the vast expanse of land, the monument has no facilities to greet visitors, who often have to navigate complicated signs and maps to find their way to trailheads or areas that allow them to participate in off-roading and recreational shooting.
Sign-in sheets posted at trailheads show a sparse number of visitors in any given month, and hikers can expect to go without any human encounters during a trip.
Interstate 8 cuts through the monument, and the southern portion is peppered with signs warning of possible human-smuggling activities.
Trash and remnants of shooting expeditions litter portions of the monument, from TVs and cast-iron pans used as target practice, to bullet casings dotting the landscape.
Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, says the trash left behind from shooters is why the club has advocated for a prohibition of recreational shooting.
“The trash can be picked up, but of course if they are shooting TVs and computer components there are metal contaminants left behind,” Bahr said. “They also shoot at vegetation which can kill plants like saguaros and paloverdes.”
A few years ago, Bahr was out at the monument when she saw pictographs that were used for target practice.
“The shooters had spray painted targets around pictographs,” she said. “There is just an ongoing challenge to get people to recognize how special the Sonoran Desert is and how we need to protect it.”
In 2013, Archaeology Southwest and the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Wilderness Society sued the Bureau of Land Management challenging its decision to allow recreational shooting throughout the monument.
Two years later, a federal judge found in favor of the environmental groups, ruling that the agency ignored its own study showing that shooting cannot be safely conducted in the area. The judge ordered the BLM to reanalyze its findings.
“We have been promoting national monuments as an appropriate and highly valued tool for a whole range of things like protection and public enjoyment,” Doelle said. “For most of the shooters that are engaged in recreational shooting, damage pisses them off as much as it might piss you and me off.”
Grijalva says the monument, which mostly falls in his congressional district, is probably the least well known or talked about of the four in Arizona up for review.
The other three are the Grand Canyon-Parashant on the northern edge of the Grand Canyon, Vermilion Cliffs along the Arizona-Utah border, and the Ironwood Forest northwest of Tucson.
“For the last six and a half years, it has been a constant drip, drip, drip of less funds into the national agencies and it starts to take its toll,” Grijalva said. “It’s depressing to see that we aren’t able to deal with some of the vandalism or to be able to do the sort of promotion and put the kind of educational activities and tours that are necessary for a monument like the Sonoran Desert.”
Despite some difficulties, the monument serves as a testament to public-use spaces, with miles of trails for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking and off-roading. Licensed hunting is also allowed for mule deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep and wild turkey, and most of the monument is open to recreational shooting.
“I’ve been to each of the four monuments and they are all special in their own way,” Bahr said. “Much of the language of the Antiquities Act is protecting the objects of the monument. If you are a bighorn sheep you don’t need just a few acres of land, so if you are really going to establish a national monument, then they are going to be a little bit bigger.”
Grijalva, Doelle and Bahr all say the focus on the national monuments under review has been centered on Bears Ears National Monument in Utah over the past few weeks.
The public was only given a 15-day comment period to voice support for or against Bears Ears, while comments on the remaining 26 monuments are accepted until July 10.
Bear Ears – with its 1.3 million acres set aside by the Obama administration – has garnered the most controversy since its designation in December due to oil and gas interests and a vocal opposition by the Utah delegation.
Grijalva says he thinks Trump has set his sights on removing the monument designation of Bears Ears and possibly Grand Staircase-Escalante, also in Utah.
“I think that everything else is to some extent a ruse,” Grijalva said. “The pressure from the industry, gas and oil, that has been the impetus all along.”
A review of the public comments posted at press time show nearly 980 mostly voicing support for the Sonoran Desert National Monument.
“Monuments not only serve to provide protections for the flora, fauna, historic sites, and cultural artifacts within them, but they provide endless opportunities for recreation, spiritual rejuvenation, and exploration,” Sarah King of Flagstaff commented.
Mandana Nakhai from Tucson wrote that national monuments like the Sonoran Desert have played an important part in her life since she was a child.
“As a child, I hiked in the monument with my dad, and learned how to be resilient in the wilderness and to appreciate the beauty of the unique environment we lived in,” she wrote. “When I got older, I made visits to Grand Staircase Monument in Utah and to many others, to hike and to take in the blessings we’ve been given as Americans in these vast, amazing and humbling lands.”
According to Colorado College’s “Conservation in the West Poll,” 86 percent of Arizonans support keeping monument designations in place compared to 9 percent who wanted them removed. The poll looked at 400 voters from December through January.
“There’s a great deal of support, especially for the four in Arizona, and a lot of support for maintaining Bears Ears,” Grijalva said. “The Antiquities Act is a big deal and that might be a fight that Trump is going to second guess himself on.”
If the monument loses its protection, Bahr worries that the land will open up to irreparable damage to its fragile ecosystem and vandalism to its cultural sites.
“Maybe the president doesn’t get it because he hears the word ‘desert’ and thinks its barren, but the Sonoran Desert is quite lush,” Bahr said. “There is such a diversity of life there, and it’s life that has adapted to living on the edge, and to know it is to love it.”