Monday, October 15, 2007

Our Desert Lands

October 15, 2007 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

The Superstition Wilderness Area and the desert that surrounds it is a vast region of a delicately balanced ecosystem. There is no ecosystem in the world more fragile than a desert environment except for the high latitude tundra. Humankind has for centuries played a major role in impacting the Upper Sonoran Desert.

The various Native American groups have used the region for several thousand years in subsistence hunting and gathering modes. Many of the ancient archaeological sites found in the area today are a mute testimony to the existence of these cultures. The ancient sites are rapidly disappearing as the desert continues to be developed.

Most development allows no desert greenbelts at all for minimal survival of fauna and flora in the Sonoran Desert, unless you want to call a golf course a greenbelt. It is a tragic sacrifice for what we get in return. Our gift in return is more air pollution, more traffic, more water quality problems and more crime.

The Native Americans followed the early prospectors who were searching for mineral wealth in these mountains long before the tales and myths of lost gold and treasure emerged from the region. There is some evidence that suggests early Mexican prospectors from Sonora and along the Gila River may have entered the region of Superstition Mountains as early as 1799.

The first American miners penetrated the area about 1863. These were small parties of prospectors coming down from the Bradshaw Mountains near Prescott during the winter months. Once silver was discovered in the Pinal Mountains the Anglo American population began to grow in the area. The miners and prospectors were soon followed by the cattlemen. The early years of the cattle barons were totally unregulated. Thousands of cattle roamed the canyons and mountains of the Superstition Wilderness Area.

One of the earliest of the cattlemen was Robert A. Irion. He arrived in the area from Wyoming with a herd about 1878. Irion brought beef on the hoof to feed the miners at Globe and the Silver King Mine. He was followed by other cattlemen like Jack Fraser, Ed Horrell and W.J. Clemans.

Fraser started his herd with 300 head of cattle he won in a poker game at the Silver King Hotel. When Fraser sold out to W. J. Clemans in 1909, more than 5,000 head of cattle roamed the Superstition range. All of this activity severely impacted the fragile Sonoran Desert ecosystem.

Regulated grazing was introduced to the Superstition Wilderness with the formation of the Tonto Preserve in 1909. The purpose of this preserve was not to protect the fragile ecosystem of the Sonoran Desert, but rather the watershed of the Salt River drainage system. The creators of the Salt River Drainage Basin feared overgrazing would cause severe soil erosion therefore destroying the drainage basin planned for natural runoff.

After the turn of the century and the death of Jacob Waltz, of the alleged Lost Dutchman Mine fame, hundreds of treasure hunters, gold prospectors and promoters searched the area for gold. Their efforts produced several books and a few permanent scars on the land. Their unique Our Desert Lands history survives to this day, but in reality did little damage to the Sonoran Desert. Those permanent scars are now monuments to the determination and tenacity of those who searched for gold and treasure, right or wrong.

The Superstition Wilderness Area has been impacted by all, including cattlemen, prospectors, miners and treasure trove hunters. The hundreds of holes produced by these people not only scarred the landscape but also created dangerous pitfalls for the innocent or novice adventurer.

During the mid-1960s the wilderness received yet another kind of human impact, the kind caused by the recreationist. This group fell into two large categories: the hikers and the horsemen. The overuse and the improvement of the trail system for these recreational users created a critical management problem for forest service. These new trail systems impacted the terrain to such a degree the trails were visible from space and high vantage points.

The sheer numbers of recreationists who use the Superstition Wilderness have heavily impacted the trail heads, trails, water sources and campsites. This impact dramatically affected the fauna and flora.

Stone rings used for campfires are found throughout the wilderness even though the forest rangers have a campaign to reduce them. There are areas where the vegetation is totally denuded, even in isolated and remote locations.

There are three modern forms of litter found throughout the wilderness since the 1960s. They are filters from cigarettes, poptops from cans and gum wrappers. These are monuments to human occupancy and use of the region in the 20th and 21st Centuries. Maybe sometime in the 21st Century we will realize how important open space and desert greenbelts will be to future generations.

If we don’t recognize the importance of desert greenbelts, most of the upper Sonoran Desert life zone will be lost to our society and future generations. If we are to maintain the beauty and solitude of this urban wilderness and the desert around it we need to examine our priorities and express concern about what is happening to our lifestyle here in the desert. Apache Junction has become one of the most unique areas in the Salt River Valley (in addition to Scottsdale) to make an attempt to preserve portions of the Sonoran Desert.

How important is this desert lifestyle? Ask any real estate agent about property values adjacent to forest service lands in the Apache Junction area. The desert has always been a part of our lifestyle. If we are to enjoy this beautiful desert we must educate people on how to care for it and how delicate it really is. We must also learn how to preserve it for the future. This we must do now. Apache Junction has taken an initiative to protect natural areas in greenbelts. Hopefully these attempts will be supported by the citizens of our community. We will need these desert preserves for future generations.