Arizona Canyon Shelters An Ecological Crossroads

Working together to protect Ramsey Canyon preserve, an oasis in the desrt rich in foliage and wildlife, environmentalists and land users find common ground

NATURALIST Tom Wood rounds the sun-dappled bend of a stream, explaining why 14 species of ferns and seven species of wild orchids are not what most people expect to find in this remote section of Arizona.

Just ahead, frozen like pointers, three bird-watchers focus their binoculars on a ruby-crowned kinglet, barely visible against the speckled bark of a sycamore. Four fawns nibble unafraid on nearby grass.

"Psh psh ... psssssssh!" whispers Mr. Wood, trying to whisk the kinglet into the open for better viewing.

We are standing on the hilly slope of a lush, riparian canyon, as beautiful as it is refreshing, as diverse in flora and fauna as it is seemingly out of place among the hundreds of miles of dusty buttes that surround it.

This is the 280-acre Ramsey Canyon preserve, an ecological crossroads on the eastern flank of the Huachuca Mountains in southeastern Arizona. In the natural world, what comes together here is unique: a mixture of plants and animals from the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Madres, and even the Eastern seaboard.

That mix means unlikely combinations of such vegetation as agave next to big-tooth maples and prickly pear cactus next to bright red manzanita or wild grape. It means rare birds, such as the earless trogon - the iridescent plumes of its relatives were used in ancient Mayan ceremonies - or an as-yet-named species of frog discovered here recently.

But also coming together in the canyon are what were perhaps once natural enemies: residents and ranchers, with their need for amenities and commerce, and environmentalists, with what some once called "vigilante" notions of keeping the abuses of man at bay.

"Regardless if they are ranchers, miners, retirees, or birders, all sides are coming together and finding they want the same thing - clean water, a productive ecosystem, and a protected watershed," says Greg Yumsovich, director of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (RNCA).

For the past two years, Mr. Yumsovich has been coordinating a growing number of local, state, and federal agencies to embrace both conservation and land-use concerns region wide.

Residents, ranchers, and business interests have also begun to network among themselves. One group has called formal meetings that began in October. The push is coming with the collective realization that the San Pedro River system - of which the Ramsey Canyon stream is one of perhaps five major tributaries - is one of the last, undammed watersheds in the Southwest. Without proper stewardship, the San Pedro could easily go the way of 90 percent of Arizona rivers that have dried up since the turn of the c entury.

The stakes are large.

With 400 species of birds - half of the total found in the United States - the San Pedro region is one of three primary resting stops for migratory birds flying to South America from Alaska, Canada, and the western US. (The other two are the Colorado River and the Rio Grande.) As such, it has become one of the favorite bird-watching centers in North America. The region boasts the largest number of birds of prey - as well as hummingbirds - in the US.

Perhaps as a gauge to the fragility of this and other ecosystems, 55 rare or endangered species can be found in the narrow, 140-mile corridor, which runs north out of Sonora, Mexico, until the San Pedro joins the Gila River near Winkelman, Ariz. Ninety percent of the wildlife in Arizona depends upon riparian (adjacent to water) corridors. That means more than three-fourths of the state's animals and birds are born, die, migrate to, breed at, feed at, or hibernate in these dwindling regions.

The number of players coming together here is large and getting larger. They include the Nature Conservancy, which owns and manages the Ramsey Canyon preserve as one of nine around the state they have been involved with for two decades. The federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) got into the act in a big way in 1986 with the RNCA - acquiring a 30-mile stretch of land along the river, from one to three miles wide.

"The subtext of this place is that this is an alliance of people and the environment," says Dan Campbell, director of the Arizona Chapter of the Nature Conservancy. "There is recognition of the idea that conservation will be best executed not by self-appointed protectors but by the realization that all those living in a given area have a giant stake in what happens to it."

The US Forest Service is in an informal partnership with the Nature Conservancy, the BLM, and a state-park system that will soon include the Kartchner Caverns State Park, due to open in 1994. And this year, the state Department of Fish and Game, the Arizona Office of Tourism, and others pooled resources for a major impact study of nature-based tourism in southeastern Arizona.

"We are beginning to educate the general public on not only the rare value of the San Pedro in supporting endangered species, but its overall value to the state," says Dot Rhodes, president of the all-volunteer Friends of the San Pedro River, based in Sierra Vista, Ariz. The 175-member group has joined with the Friends of the Babocomari - another key tributary - as well as the Audubon Society of Huachuca, Ariz., and local chapters of the Native Plant Society.

Joint projects include everything from litter pick up to canvassing local residents about use of low-flush toilets and water-saver shower heads. One main program began in earnest in October to educate residents on the danger of over pumping groundwater. Under the umbrella term "coordinated resource management," formal meetings with local ranchers have begun to help avert a growing controversy concerning additional land acquisition by the BLM.

"If there are ways of getting the ranchers to take care of the land and conserve water on their own, that is what the BLM would rather do," says Rhodes. "Otherwise, [the BLM] will step up the push for direct acquisition."

The results of the nature-based tourism study released by the University of Arizona in later October are expected to fuel still more consciousness-raising. The study showed the impact on total industry output to be a significant $3 million per year.

"Slowly but surely the people and businesses here are beginning to realize the extent to which they depend on the beauty and uniqueness of what is here," says Linda Small, director of Cochise County Economic Development. She has been working on a four-county business development plan that includes new attractions for visitors, with built-in threshholds that will keep environmental degradation to a minimum.

"The environmental movement is not a fad here," says Ms. Small. "If people, businesses, and conservationists don't achieve the right balance between their concerns, our home will be destroyed for future generations."

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