Ragged Top

Craggy Ragged Top and scenic terrain are constants at the Ironwood Forest National Monument northwest of Tucson.

At this time last year, Ironwood Forest was undergoing the executive ordered “review” of all national monuments over 100,000 acres designated since 2000. The good news is that Ironwood Forest remains intact. The not so good news is that, within the last week, it could have been eliminated by the stroke of a pen with no opportunity for public comment.

A bit of history is in order. In 1999 by unanimous vote the Pima County Board of Supervisors requested that a parcel of land, including Ragged Top Mountain and surrounding area, be set aside for protection under the Sonoran Desert Protection Plan. The plan brought developers, conservationists, and outdoor enthusiasts together to develop a blueprint for steering future growth into less environmentally sensitive areas and setting aside biologically diverse lands for protection. With more than 600 plant species — and the last surviving herd of desert bighorn sheep in the Tucson area — Ragged Top was and is a textbook example of exceptional biological diversity. Ironwood Forest National Monument was created by executive order in July 2000.

In the 18 years since monument designation, hundreds of volunteers have invested thousands of hours working on projects ranging from trash and buffelgrass removal, to ecological restoration, to fence building, to building and maintaining water catchments for wildlife.

During the public comment period provided by the executive review, an overwhelming majority of respondents (90-plus percent) expressed support for each of the 27 monuments under review. With that level of support you might think our elected officials would have gotten the message that we love our public lands and want them protected for ourselves and future generations. If so you would be wrong.

On July 16, Arizona GOP Rep. Paul Gosar, whose 4th district does not include any portion of Ironwood Forest or the extended Tucson area, introduced an amendment to an appropriation bill that would have effectively erased Ironwood Forest from the map. With very short notice, the Friends of Ironwood forest, with help from the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, Conservation Lands Foundation, National Parks and Conservation Association, Sierra Club and Wilderness Society mobilized the opposition. We phoned and emailed our members of Congress, and the amendment was defeated 230-193.

Our heartfelt thanks to our partners in conservation and everyone who contacted their members of Congress. We dodged a bullet, this time, but there’s an object lesson here for all who value our natural heritage. Protection of public lands is tenuous at best and can easily by undone by the sort of stealth attack that could have eliminated Ironwood Forest.

We must remain ever vigilant and ready to respond when our natural heritage is threatened by elected officials whose only interest is to aid in the exploitation of public lands by the extractive industries who own them.

William Thornton is a second-generation Arizonan, lifelong outdoor enthusiast and conservationist, and vice president of the Friends of Ironwood forest.