|Issue 3, Summer 2003|
Farewell to Desert Solitude?
The 31,000-acre Mt. Tipton Wilderness lies in the Cerbat Mountains in northwestern Arizona. Desert scrub and cacti from the Mojave Desert floor transitions to pinyon pine, silk tassel, and live oak while chaparral claims the higher elevations. Gambel’s quail tracks spread like an indecipherable alphabet across the sand, while whiptail lizards share rocks and gravel washes with diamondback rattlesnakes. At dusk, a cougar slips along the rocky outcrops on silent paws in search of inattentive mule deer browsing below. It is a quiet place, the palpable desert silence stirred by dry breezes.
But this may be about to change. In October 2002 the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved year-round motor vehicle travel through the Mt. Tipton Wilderness for a property owner wishing to develop a 60-acre parcel of private land. The property is located 1.2 miles inside the wilderness near the head of a rugged drainage named Marble Canyon. Private property surrounded by federal land is called an "inholding." The current owners purchased the Marble Canyon inholding in 1998, eight years after Congress designated the surrounding area as wilderness.
The landowners were aware at the time of purchase that the land did not come with a valid right-of-way or access easement. While the Wilderness Act allows BLM to provide “adequate access,” it does not guarantee motorized access. It also allows BLM to offer a land exchange instead of access. At Mt. Tipton, BLM negotiated several parcels for exchange, but the landowner refused the offers.
Other parcels of private land lie adjacent to the inholding. BLM anticipates that once the route is developed to accommodate motorized access, adjoining property owners may apply for permits to drive through the Wilderness to reach their property. While the BLM estimates that only 100-200 people currently visit Marble Canyon each year, this secluded portion of the Mt Tipton Wilderness is at risk of becoming a motorized thoroughfare for a handful of land owners and their clients, employees, and guests.
All of the private land within Marble Canyon is currently undeveloped. The primary evidence of human activity is a fading track winding along a dry wash as it climbs up the rugged canyon. Local ranch hands say the track has been impassable to vehicles for at least 15 years. Vegetation, rockfall and erosion have reclaimed the path until it is no more than a few feet wide. This will change if the proposed horse ranch is approved. The project includes renovation work to turn the fading track into an access road, the construction of a private residence with adjacent barns and riding arenas, and the installment of a well and septic system. Electricity will be provided by a mechanized generator, the noise of which could drown out the native voices of the desert Wilderness.
BLM approved unlimited daily motor vehicle trips during the construction phase to enable workers to transport materials and heavy equipment, including a backhoe, drill rig, and flatbed trailers. Once construction is complete, the owners are allowed two motor vehicle trips each week to transport clients, guests, horse trailers, and hay through the Wilderness.
The agency considered using packstock instead of motor vehicles to transport building materials. In fact, the agency stated that the landowners would likely develop their property even if motor vehicle access was denied. BLM claims that use of packstock would negatively impact the Wilderness by trampling the access track, and that the presence of manure and the sight of packstrings may be offensive to Wilderness visitors. We must ask, however:a cavalcade of motor vehicles, the growling of V-8 and diesel engines, and the aroma of gasoline exhaust is considered more compatible and benign?
If BLM’s decision is allowed to stand, then motor vehicles pulling horse trailers and flatbed trucks will routinely be churning up the dust in Marble Canyon. The Mt. Tipton Wilderness will no longer be a place without permanent roads and motor vehicles, no longer a secluded sanctuary where expanding settlement and growing mechanization have not modified the landscape, as intended by the Wilderness Act. The groan of an electric generator and ranch machinery will echo against the canyon’s silent walls. At night electric lights will dispel the desert darkness and diminish the glow of the stars. The area’s Wilderness character will be sacrificed to one property owners’ dream of developing a commercial enterprise on inexpensive land.
In an effort to prevent this outcome, Wilderness Watch filed an appeal and petition for a stay with the Interior Department of Land Appeals (IBLA) in January 2003. Others who joined and assisted with the appeal include the Arizona Wilderness Coalition, Center for Biological Diversity, Maricopa Audubon Society, and two individuals that care deeply about this special place. A decision on our stay request is expected by late January. If a stay is denied, then the inholder will be free to saddle up his pickup trucks, round up a backhoe, and begin routinely motoring up and down Marble Canyon inside the Mt. Tipton Wilderness.
--by Tina Marie Ekker
Tina Marie Ekker is the Policy Coordinator for the Missoula, Montana-based group, Wilderness Watch. www.wildernesswatch.org.