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.