Protecting Arizona's Sonoran Desert

"This endeavor is about preserving the history, the heritage, and the legacy of Arizona. For me, there is no higher calling."

- Marshall Trimble, Official Arizona State Historian 

Rep. Raúl Grijalva has introduced legislation to more fully protect the stark-yet-fragile landscapes of the Sonoran Desert west of Phoenix (map).

Based on more than six years of intensive field work by a broad coalition of Arizonans, the Sonoran Desert Protection Act envisions a system of protected public lands that will serve many community goals—preserving the ecological and cultural heritage of the Sonoran Desert, offering a wide array of recreational opportunities, protecting wildlife habitat and essential migration corridors, assuring the viability of nearby military facilities, and promoting economic development through enhanced tourism opportunities.

This desert landscape is threatened by the rapid expansion of Greater Phoenix, drawing many diverse interests—conservationists, developers, military and community leaders—to see the urgency of providing a more coherent set of policies and protected areas on the federally-owned lands that lie in the path of unplanned, piecemeal development.

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"In the 30 years I've been visiting this area, I see growth coming, and in the valley both to the east and west, there will be homes and development that will really change the region. If we have the foresight, we have a great opportunity to preserve this area in a way much like it is today."

- Craig Weaver: Avid local hiker and naturalist, Tonopah Area Coalition

One of the highlights of the bill is the establishment of the Belmont-Harquahala National Conservation Area. National conservation areas (NCA) are established by Congress to conserve, protect, restore, and manage public lands for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations. At the heart of this 276,000-acre NCA, is a proposed wilderness area: the Belmont Mountains Wilderness (19,000 acres) and additions to the Hummingbird Springs Wilderness (17,000 additional acres). This complex, with these wilderness areas at its core, would enhance the Bureau of Land Management's protection of the high scenic, wildlife, and recreational values of these granite mountains.

Protecting the Belmont Mountains as wilderness will assure viable, long-term wildlife habitat and expand the vital wildlife migratory corridor between the nearby Harquahala Mountains and the Hummingbird Springs Wilderness, which Congress designated in 1990. The outstanding beauty of the area, the numerous opportunities for primitive, unconfined recreation—such as hiking, horseback riding, hunting, photography, mineral collecting, and camping—and the chance to find deep levels of solitude more than qualify this area for the protection afforded under the 1964 Wilderness Act.

 Runoff from this mountain range creates a dense growth of ironwood, mesquite and Palo Verde trees, especially along a network of washes that drain northeast to the larger Hassayampa River watershed and aquifer. This rugged terrain provides desirable habitat for iconic species such as the Sonoran Desert tortoise and desert bighorn sheep, as well as mule deer, kit fox, prairie falcons, and the Gila monster.

Kit FoxLowland corridors, with their verdant shade and occasional water flows, provide a critical linkage allowing wildlife to move between mountain ranges under the cover of vegetation.

Because of the outstanding wildlife habitat found within these mountains and the surrounding washes and bajadas, the area is a veritable hunter's delight for those drawing tags for mule deer, javelina, and occasionally bighorn sheep.

Star gazing, bird watching, horseback riding, and hiking are other common recreational activities in the area, where visitors can experience the essence of what the Sonoran Desert was like hundreds of years ago—dark, quiet, and teeming with native wildlife.

The Sonoran Desert Heritage coalition will continue to work for broader and stronger public support that will inspire other members of the Arizona congressional delegation to help achieve these important conservation designations. 

Pew and This American Land