In March last year, the Pima County Board of Supervisors hosted Bruce Babbitt, then the Secretary of the Interior under President Bill Clinton. Supervisors asked--little force was necessary--that Babbitt recommend monument status for the ironwood forest, in rugged desert 25 miles northwest of Tucson and in the Silverbell and Ragged Top mountains.
Babbitt traded greetings with Supervisor Dan Eckstrom, the Democrat whose political clan (the Lena family) had an uneasy relationship with the former Arizona governor. Babbitt, in his characteristic rapid delivery, told Eckstrom how eager he was to return to Arizona, to get out of brutal political sport of Washington, D.C. The allegation of the Indian gaming fix still stung.
Supporters of both the county's sweeping Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan and the ironwood forest preservation filled the room ready to laud their pols.
Only a breathless, young lawyer named Amy McAllister tried to douse the spirit. She had raced just a half block from Tucson's lone high rise at One South Church to speak for Lewis & Roca, the law firm for ASARCO. The copper mining giant's interests would be harmed, she said. The impact of her pitch was severely undermined when she had difficulty remembering her firm's address when her name and address were sought for the record.
Babbitt bounded from the dais and into the wilderness, taking along County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry and some reporters for a hike among the ironwoods. Babbitt, no novice on Arizona ecosystems, repeatedly remarked about the area's beauty and importance. And nine weeks later, Babbitt recommended that Clinton use the 1906 Antiquities Act and place more than 130,000 acres under federal protection as a national monument.
Gary Paul Nabhan, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum research scientist who led the preparation of the landmark ironwood study used by the county, the "Desert Ironwood Primer," wrote in the Tucson Weekly (June 8, 2000) how the "slow-growing" and often ignored and abused ironwood forest area "sped past" other sites and became a top contender for monument designation.
Clinton followed Babbitt's recommendation, using the Antiquities Act on June 9 to protect 128,917 acres in the Ironwood Forest National Monument.
Ironwoods can live for 800 years and beyond. Rugged and dense--they easily dull saw blades and chunks of ironwood sink in water--the legumes are what Nabhan wrote in his primer, "a habitat modifying keystone species, that is a species that exhibits strong influences on the distribution and abundance of associated species."
They protect other plants and animals from extreme heat and cold and freezes. It is a nurse plant that, Nabhan's study told the county, has a role in supporting the biodiversity of more than 500 Sonoran Desert species, including the endangered cactus ferruginous pygmy owl.
Memorialized and poeticized by environmental icon Edward Abbey and others, the ironwood has been threatened in its habitats in Mexico, Arizona and California by harvesting for carvings and charcoal production, and by development.
It was a rare example of government on the move, though the speed was a little deceiving. Much of the work, including meetings with land owners, was already done. Still, it was far too swift for some.
Opponents, including ASARCO and the State Land Department, are urging the Bush administration, as well as Arizona Republicans, Sen. Jon Kyl and Reps. Jim Kolbe and John Shaddegg, to force a re-examination of the monument designation. At issue, or threatened according to environmentalists, are the monument's boundaries, mining use, and off-road use.
Kolbe said in an interview that it appeared creation of the Ironwood Forest National Monument was "rushed."
"Rushing is a mistake," he said.
He contrasted time taken to designate the Ironwood monument with the five years that has gone into Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, which stretches from Saguaro National Park East south into Santa Cruz County and just north of Fort Huachuca in Cochise County.
"I've argued all along that the planning ought to include all interest groups, including mining and state lands," Kolbe said.
Environmentalists and county officials counter that there was extensive outreach and planning and, also rare in county government, consensus. Landowners and ranchers, this time, joined with preservationists, county officials and the Tohono O'odham nation. It was that cooperation that created the momentum for the federal action.
Indeed, Kevin Dahl, who is leaving his top job at the Tucson Audubon Society to be a superintendent in the county's Natural Resource Parks and Recreation Department, says the very cooperation that went into the Ironwood Forest National Monument makes the status hard to undo.
"Personally, I'm not so worried," Dahl said. "There was such strong local support that it would be a political mistake to change it or tamper with it."
Carolyn Campbell, the longtime preservationist and leader of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, is not afraid to say she is worried. Campbell nosed her way in to a recent tour of some of the Ironwood Forest National Monument that the Bureau of Land Management hosted.
"It's definitely a battle we're going to have to fight," Campbell said. Of the monuments Clinton proclaimed, the Ironwood preserve is the most threatened, she added.
Diane Durazo, an aide to Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson, took the tour. But neither Kolbe's office nor that of Southern Arizona's other representative, Democrat Ed Pastor, was represented at the tour. Kyl, who has spoken against the Ironwood Monument, did have a staffer there. Kolbe said he was "anxious" to have such a tour.
Campbell said she is concerned about possible boundary changes as well as exemptions for off-road use and mining.
Kyl, in an opinion piece he wrote last month, said residents as well as state and federal officials were left out of the planning for the Ironwood and four other monuments Clinton declared.
"Instead, the planning process was done in Washington, D.C.," Kyl wrote. "As a result of the inadequate process, the natural, cultural, and historical resources and traditional uses that creation of the monuments was supposed to protect are threatened. Visitors from around the world are coming to see the monuments and the Bureau of Land Management is not prepared."
Kyl said Interior Secretary Gale Norton, a target of environmentalists over her anti-environmental past and her performance as the Colorado attorney general, will develop land use management plans for the monuments.
The county has sent several letters to Norton urging her to not tamper with the Ironwood Monument.
Bronson and Raul Grijalva, the Democratic chairman of the Board of Supervisors, signed the first such letter on February 6. They commended Norton for her comments made in a CNN interview on the importance of local input on federal decisions. The Ironwood Monument, the two said, was designated "only after numerous meetings with private property owners, ranchers, and other interests, all of whom supported the designation. To our knowledge, the only group that opposed the monument designation was a mining interest."
In a March 28 response, Norton asked for help in "determining what course we should take in determining the future of this national monument. You and your constituents are the most directly affected parties in the monument's creation and I believe you should have a significant say in how it is operated."
Norton's solicitation included uses, rights of way, grazing, water rights and private inholdings. She clearly left open the door to changes and different treatment for different parts of the monument.
"I also want to learn from you which areas within the monument are truly special and should be reserved for their unique environmental or historic characteristics," Norton wrote.
The tone since has changed. An April 4 letter from Grijalva begins: "Contrary to the assumption that local input was missing in the designation of the new National Monument in Pima County, the Ironwood Forest National Monument was established after an extensive and detailed public review and participation process. The genesis for the Ironwood Forest National Monument began almost three years ago with the Board of Supervisors initiating a regional conservation planning process."
Grijalva also said ASARCO has trespassed on federal land and that an exchange between the mining company and the federal government was one way to resolve the issue.
Next came an April 24 admonition Grijalva issued Norton in which he asked for her "assistance in upholding two important land ethics that we feel strongly about in Pima County, Arizona: Balancing interests with full respect paid to the broad community viewpoint, and open discussion of natural resource issues as part of an inclusionary public process."
Grijalva urged that all discussions about the "management of this locally popular monument" be held in public. "As you learn more about Pima County I feel sure you will come to understand and support us in our attempts to resolve difficult resource issues through a fair, open and broad-based approach," Grijalva wrote.
But perhaps the most stirring of the local letters was from rancher Myra E. Smith, who served as the chairwoman for Ironwood Monument subcommittee of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.
In an April 24 letter to Kyl, Smith said the "Ironwood Forest National Monument is the last undeveloped area in Pima County, with one of the richest ecosystems in the state. The people here approached our government and met with (then) Secretary Bruce Babbitt. This monument was not a 'Clinton Land Grab' as certain state politicians would have you believe."
Smith said Norton didn't include her or the "local community" when she solicited suggestions on the monument's land management.
"Please help us get representation in Washington," Smith wrote. "We will not go away."
The second Ironwood Festival will be held May 6 from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Tucson Audubon Society Mason Center, 8751 N. Thornydale Road. It will include food, music, trail walks, and raffles. Also included in a festival blessing, Seri ironwood carvings, a natural fiber workshop, storytelling, and stargazing with Starizona. Admission is $2 for adults. Children 12 and under are free. Call 572-9881.