Monday, August 18, 2014

A Crowded Wilderness

August 11, 2014 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Looking down on Apache Junction from high in the Superstition Wilderness Area.
Since the creation of the Superstition Wilderness Area in 1939, Americans have enjoyed the beauty and solitude of this special portion of the Sonoran Desert. This wilderness is a land of great diversity in both fauna and flora. The animals range from the delicate hummingbird to the large black bear. The flora exhibits a wide range of species from the giant saguaro cactus to the stately ponderosa pine.

This wilderness was created to preserve a portion of the Sonoran Desert, in its natural state, for future generations of Americans to enjoy.  Those who conceived the idea of this wilderness wanted to preserve the region because they visualized the future growth of the Salt River Valley. This growth has had a dynamic impact on the Superstition Wilderness Area over the past four decades. Forest Service Managers have not been able to solve all problems associated with uncontrolled urban sprawl. 

When the U.S. Department of Agriculture set aside 124,120 acres as a wilderness area in 1939 there was quite an outcry. The area was first reclassified as primitive area permitting cattle raising, recreation and mining. This classification became the backbone of the multi-use or purpose concept. The cattle industry had the loudest voice because the mining interests realized there was little potential within the boundaries of the wilderness except for prospectors and treasure hunters with a lot of dreams. The region was eventually closed to mineral entry on December 31, 1983. The wilderness was increased in 1984 by approximately 35,640 acres preserving the region around Haunted Canyon. 

The original designation of the area as “road-less” had little impact on people because driving in such an area was very limited anyway. The managers of the wilderness allowed access corridors within the wilderness. One was the nine- mile Reavis Ranch Corridor and the other was the three and a half-mile Tortilla Ranch Corridor.

From 1939 through 1962, there was little opposition or concern by the public of the Superstition Primitive Area. Between 1960-1965 there was considerable growth in the use of off-road vehicles and outdoor recreation. This public interest in the outdoors and the increased population in the valley created management problems for those who managed public lands.

Outdoor recreation groups organized and began to provide input as to what public lands should be used for. This resulted in a better-defined multi-purpose plan for public lands, however it did not address primitive public lands such as the Superstition Primitive Area.

The United States Congress passed the National Wilderness Act in 1964. The purpose of the bill was to set aside and protect certain scenic and unique areas in the United States for future generations.  Since the passage of this act, the demand on the Superstition Wilderness Area by hikers, backpackers, outfitters, and horsemen for economic and recreational purposes has far exceeded any original planning.  The problems of overuse became immediately apparent. Trail erosion, fire rings, pollution, decrease in wildlife, plant damage and mining all had an impact on future plans. The original management plan was soon obsolete. The impact of people on the wilderness has been reduced by a constant revision of plans and regulations.  The Superstition Wilderness Area, because of its close proximity to a rapidly expanding metropolitan area, has in reality become an urban wilderness for weekenders. During the week this region is quiet and peaceful, but look out on the weekends.   

Contrary to the philosophy of some, the wilderness has become an outdoor museum to history and legend, as well as a scenic wonderland of gigantic cliffs, towering spires, and deep canyons.  To preserve this unique character and solitude some very tough decisions will have to be made in the near future to control access. 

The Department of Agriculture has implemented a parking fee system at both First Water and Peralta Trailheads. The fee of four dollars a day is one way of controlling or reducing use. For this fee structure to succeed, limited parking will have to be enforced which will eventually lead to reservations similar to the Grand Canyon’s restrictions. We all know too many people loving a place to death, eventually leads to the strictest of regulations and control. Eventually the trailhead parking fees were lifted by the Department of Agriculture.

As a young man working on the Quarter Circle U Ranch just a little southeast of the Peralta Trailhead I recall a true and desolate desert frontier.  Huge herds of Javelina roamed the desert. I saw herds that numbered between thirty and forty.  Mule deer were so numerous they visited our windmill site daily.  There were even a few prospectors living in the hills. Hikers were virtually unknown in the 1950s. There were a few horses and riders, but they were few and far between. It was a different time, cattle roamed the range and we just about had the place to ourselves. 

Future planners must recognize the desperate need there is for open space, parks and green belts as they continue to cover the desert with houses.  The City of Apache Junction and Pinal County supervisors have an obligation to their citizens to preserve some of this desert for future generations. If the building of communities continue in this desert at a fast pace we will soon run out of water and probably decent infrastructure for the citizens of this county. The future of such places as the Superstition Wilderness Area lies in our hands.