September 8, 2011
Groups Seek Improvement to BLM's Draft Management Plan for Sonoran Desert Lands
Draft plan acknowledges wilderness characteristics and cultural landscapes, but leaves too many areas open to unrestrained motorized use.
Matt Skroch, Executive Director, Arizona Wilderness Coalition: 520-247-1754
Mike Quigley, Arizona Wildlands Campaigns Coordinator, The Wilderness Society: 520-334-8741
Andy Laurenzi, Southwest Field Representative, Center for Desert Archaeology: 520-603-2186
Thom Hulen, Executive Director, Friends of Sonoran Desert National Monument: 602-619-9717
Sandy Bahr, Director-Grand Canyon Chapter, Sierra Club: 602-253-8633
PHOENIX—The Bureau of Land Management—the agency responsible for protecting more than 12 million acres of public lands in Arizona—has released its draft resource management plan for the Lower Sonoran Field Office and the Sonoran Desert National Monument, which includes thousands of additional acres of prime desert wildlife habitat, archaeological sites, and historic trails west and south of Phoenix.
Conservation groups, including Arizona Wilderness Coalition, The Wilderness Society, Friends of Sonoran Desert National Monument, and Sierra Club, are digesting the 1,100-page document, analyzing how closely the BLM’s alternatives come to protecting lands with wilderness characteristics, wildlife movement corridors, and sensitive cultural areas like the Great Bend of the Gila River, the Anza trail, and the Butterfield Stage Coach Route among others. This region of Arizona may contain the most historical and cultural artifacts anywhere in the Sonoran Desert.
“We commend the agency for improving conservation management of the Sonoran Desert National Monument, though millions of acres elsewhere in the planning district draw a short stick for wilderness and wildlife protections,” says Matt Skroch, executive director with the Phoenix-based Arizona Wilderness Coalition (AWC). “While the preferred alternative does well to minimize conflict between land conservation and solar development, it hardly provides much substance for how off-road vehicle (ORV) use will be managed and mitigated. Sonoran Desert gems such as Face Mountain, Yellow Medicine Butte, and cultural sites along the Gila River will continue to be carved up by motorized uses in the current plan.”
The preferred alternative protects a good portion of the Sand Tank Mountains in the Sonoran Desert National Monument to preserve their wilderness character, as well as a small unit around Saddle Mountain in Tonopah. In spite of these protections, too many roads are recommended to be left open through and around these units—an unnecessary hazard to significant cultural and natural resources. The conservation alternative identified nearly 430,000 acres for protection—a stark contrast to the 166,000 acres in the preferred alternative.
“The farther an archaeological site is from a road open to motorized use, the less likely the site will be visited and put a greater risk from vandalism and looting, activities which continue to impact cultural resources on public lands,” says Andy Laurenzi, southwest field representative for the Center for Desert Archaeology. “Travel management decisions and designations that seek to maintain wilderness characteristics may be the simplest and most cost effective ways for public lands managers to better steward our cultural heritage.”
A broad coalition of local stakeholders is working on the Sonoran Desert Heritage (SDH) proposal, a legislative effort to protect approximately 700,000 acres spanning the Lower Sonoran Field Office and the Hassayampa Field Office. Two areas proposed for wilderness in the SDH initiative are Margie’s Peak and the Butterfield Stage Memorial, both of which lie in Sonoran Desert National Monument. Yet these areas did not make it to the BLM’s preferred alternative list for areas to be managed for wilderness characteristics, even though Margie’s Peak offers outstanding habitat and connectivity for bighorn sheep, and the Butterfield unit features a high volume of cultural sites such as rock shelters, lithic scatters, and petroglyphs—all documented in extensive inventories done by citizen volunteers over a period of 10 years.
The BLM’s preferred alternative also ignores the majority of wilderness character at Saddle Mountain, an iconic peak near Tonopah that offers unparalleled solitude and wildlife viewing just 40 minutes from downtown Phoenix. Saddle Mountain’s steep slopes have numerous cliffs and alcoves that protect young lambs from predators like coyotes and mountain lions. In 2009, Saddle Mountain’s bighorn sheep population had become so robust that the Arizona Game and Fish Department was able to trans-locate sheep from its craggy peaks out to the western Buckeye Hills. The range also provides a critical migration corridor for numerous animals that move between peaks in the north—the Harquahala and Belmont Mountains—to those in the south such as the Gila Bend Mountains, Woolsey Peak, and Signal Mountain.
"We strongly believe that preserving habitat and migration corridors for wildlife must be a primary focus of BLM's management of their lower Sonoran region," says Mike Quigley, Arizona representative with The Wilderness Society. "We believe that can be accomplished in an appropriate balance with solar development and responsible recreational uses."
A 2011 study by Arizona State University shows that human-powered outdoor recreation pumps $5.3 billion dollars into Arizona’s economy and supports more than 86,000 jobs statewide. Studies also show that communities located near protected public lands are some of the fastest growing in the nation, due to the recreational opportunities and high quality of life those lands provide residents.
“As Arizona’s population continues to expand, it makes practical economic sense to protect what draws people here in the first place,” says Thom Hulen, executive director with Friends of Sonoran Desert National Monument. “We have a great opportunity here to work with the BLM to ensure premier management of our unique Sonoran Desert. This draft plan is a step in the right direction, but the public needs to get involved and make sure their most treasured vistas, wildlife, and historic places are adequately protected as the pressure for more intense recreation creeps outward from growing West Valley communities.”
Public comments on the draft alternatives are being accepted by the BLM until November 25, 2011. Public meetings are being scheduled through the month of October. Find local meeting schedules, comment forms, and how to submit online at: http://www.blm.gov/az/st/en/prog/planning/son_des/reports.html.
 Bavousett and O’Neill, Sustainable Economic Benefits of Human-Powered Recreation in the State of Arizona. Arizona State University School of Sustainability, April 2011.
The Arizona Wilderness Coalition’s mission is to permanently protect and restore wilderness and other wild lands and waters in Arizona for the enjoyment of all citizens and to ensure that Arizona's native plants and animals have a lasting home in wild nature. www.azwild.org
The Wilderness Society is the leading public-lands conservation organization working to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places. Founded in 1935, and now with more than 500,000 members and supporters, TWS has led the effort to permanently protect 110 million acres of wilderness and to ensure sound management of our shared national lands. www.wilderness.org
Friends of Sonoran Desert National Monument works to protect the natural and cultural resources in the Sonoran Desert National Monument and defend against external activities that may adversely affect the monument. www.sonorandesertfriends.org
The Center for Desert Archaeology works to preserve the places of our shared past through research, promoting a stewardship ethic, working for longterm protection of cultural heritage, and by enabling people to explore and learn about the Southwest’s past. www.cdarc.org
The Sierra Club’s mission:
To explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth;
To practice and promote the responsible use of the earth's ecosystems and resources;
To educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and to use all lawful means to carry out these objectives. www.sierraclub.org
Photos, top to bottom:
Motorized route sprawl, Sonoran Desert National Monument, Jason Williams
Butterfield Stage Route, Sonoran Desert National Monument
Sonoran Desert Tortoise, US Fish and Wildlife Service
Desert Bighorn Sheep, Arizona Game and Fish Department