The U.S. Department of the Interior is conducting a review of certain National Monuments designated or expanded since 1996 under the Antiquities Act of 1906 in order to implement Executive Order 13792 of April 26, 2017, and to formulate recommendations for Presidential action or legislative proposals to carry out that policy. Four of these National Monuments are in Arizona. My intent isn’t to politicize, but rather inform readers of my experience with each of these four locations.
Native to the Sonoran Desert, the Desert Ironwood tree earned its moniker from its very hard wood – a timber that is 21% denser than water and would sink like a rock. Its beautiful grain is reminiscent of mesquite, but its only commercial use is for small specialty woodworking projects. Unlike other desert trees, the ironwood tree doesn’t shed its leaves, provides legumes in the opposite season, and is one of the longest living trees in the world. Specimens live to more than 800 years and some may be as old as 1,200 years old!
In Sonoran habitat, this old growth tree is a keystone species because of its nurse plant ecology. It provides shade and nutrients for undergrowth seed germination, seedling protection from extreme temperatures, and sapling refugia from herbivores. Succulents such as saguaros, organ pipes, and barrel cacti thrive under its protective canopy.
As I passed through the Monument, I was struck not by the presence of Ironwoods but rather by the abundance of Palo Verdes. Palo Verde trees were everywhere! Palo Verde trees are also nurse plants which gave rise to the preponderance of saguaros, ocotillos, and chollas. The foliage was as thick a demonstration of classic Sonoran Desert habitat as I’ve seen anywhere. The west side of Ragged Top Mountain was particularly lush with desert vegetation.
Devoid of traffic, trails, and tourists, I’d describe the National Monument a Conservation Preserve more than a destination. It harbors the last remaining relict population of desert bighorn sheep, the rare pygmy owl, and the endangered Turk’s Head Cactus. In addition to the dismissive flora and fauna, there are more than 200 Hohokam archaeological finds within the gerrymandered boundaries of the park. Some of these sites date back more than 1,400 years.
I tried to see it all but access is hindered by its shape. Its weird “S” shape includes three lobes connected by two narrow necks of land. To keep the park contiguous, the necks connect the lobes, which left me to presume that each lobe holds a hallowed secret – something worth hiding or protecting. Furthermore, the incredibly odd boundary line made me wonder about the proponents’ sagacity. Or motive!
The most obvious feature of the area isn’t the rugged terrain or rare specimens, but rather the intrusive Silverbell mine straddling its lobed border. The adjacent Silverbell mountains have rich deposits of silver and copper, and the current mine dominates the area. I later learned that area residents and environmentalists pushed for Federal protection to squelch mine expansion, perhaps more so than for the ecology. Ah… motive!
Under the Antiquities Act, preservation of historical artifacts and protection of endangered habitat and species is obvious. Odd boundaries and adjacent mines might trigger discussions of intent, a discussion that may not go well.