Exhibits: The Lands: National Landscape Conservation System
An area designated by Congress and defined by the Wilderness Act of 1964 as a place "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." Designation is aimed at ensuring that these lands are preserved and protected in their natural condition. Wilderness areas, which are generally at least 5,000 acres or more in size, offer outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation, such areas may also contain ecological, geological, or other features that have scientific, scenic, or historical value. The BLM manages 148 Wilderness Areas encompassing 6.3 million acres.
Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness
When the Spanish first penetrated the lands of the Sonoran Desert, they were exploring lands that had been inhabited for thousands of years, but where the hand of man had left little impact. Indeed, the mountains and canyons of southern Arizona remained largely untouched until American settlement began in earnest. The Americans built roads and dams, mined the mountains, released cattle onto the rangeland, and founded numerous towns. The remote backcountry areas proved too remote even for the land-hungry homesteaders, and many of these pristine desert mountains have been preserved as wilderness.
The BLM and the Forest Service manage most of the wilderness areas in Arizona. The BLM manages 47 separate areas, covering 1.4 million acres throughout the state. They encompass the full range of ecosystems, from the Sonoran desert up through pinon-juniper woodlands and deep ponderosa pine forests. The wilderness areas protect crucial habitat for many endangered, threatened, and sensitive wildlife and plants, and also protect many essential watersheds.
The 19,410-acre Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness is 120 miles southeast of Phoenix, Arizona. The wilderness includes the 11-mile long Aravaipa Canyon, as well as the surrounding tablelands and nine side canyons. Within the colorful 1,000-foot canyon walls, outstanding scenery, wildlife, and rich history are all protected. Seven species of native desert fish, desert bighorn sheep, and over 200 species of birds live among shady cottonwoods along the perennial waters of Aravaipa Creek.
Archeological evidence points to inhabitation of Aravaipa Canyon going back about 6500 years, including groups of Mogollon, Hohokam, Salado, and Apache people. An extremely well-preserved cliff dwelling lies just south of the entrance, and other sites dot the wilderness. When Europeans settled the area, the canyon became a travel corridor between Tucson and the Gila Valley. The Aravaipa band of Apaches also used it, mainly to conduct raids into Sonora. Apache depradations on surrounding communities increased steadily through the mid-19th century, when the Apaches were convinced to settle at a reservation near Aravaipa Creek. Later, they were moved north into the San Carlos reservation.
The lands of Aravaipa Canyon wilderness contain diverse habitats, although hikers generally travel through the bosque, or woodlands, along the creek. Above the creek, saguaros stud the canyon walls, and the highest parts of the Santa Teresa and Galiuro Mountains are covered with evergreen forests. Of prime importance in this wilderness is Aravaipa Creek, which is the last pristine, free-flowing waterbody in the state. The creek is crucial to seven species native desert fish, including the threatened loach minnow and spikedace. The creek also supports an enormous variety of bird life, with more than 150 documented songbirds, and many exotic species found mostly in Mexico and Central America. Protected species in the wilderness include the peregrine falcon, common black-hawk, bald eagle, cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl, and southwestern willow flycatcher. Other wildlife includes mountain lions, desert bighorn sheep, bats, coatimundi, javelina, deer, and the ubiquitous coyote.
This desert ecosystem is so fragile that the BLM closely monitors human traffic. No more than 50 people a day are permitted to enter Aravaipa Canyon, with each group being limited to 10 people and 5 head of livestock. People packing in must move their stock out of the canyon bottom at night, to minimize contamination of the precious desert creek. Pets are not allowed in the wilderness at all. The entrance to Aravaipa Canyon is through private lands owned by The Nature Conservancy. The BLM has a partnership with The Nature Conservancy to permit access through their lands, but all visitors should be respectful of the boundaries of surrounding private lands.
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