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News for Southeastern Arizona, provided by the University of Arizona School of Journalism

Ironwood: The little monument that could

Ironwood National Monument Photo By: Miranda Rodriguez/ Arizona Sonora News Service

Off the beaten path, Ironwood Forest National Monument has dodged literal and figurative bullets and survived an ever-changing American culture and government.

Located in Marana, Ironwood Forest National Monument is remote. Created under President Bill Clinton in 2000, its 129,000 acres are made up of pure, untamed desert. They harbor zero buildings, no ranger station, no first-aid kits and no marked trails. There also aren’t many signs, and the only way to really get close is through rugged dirt roads. It’s what many would call a pristine environment, and that’s just the way lovers of this monument like it.

“It’s one of the most memorable hikes I’ve ever been on,” said Erica Newman, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Arizona.

Ironwood, however, has seen some trouble in recent months. In April, President Trump made an executive order for many National Parks to be reviewed by the Department of the Interior. Ironwood was one of four in Arizona on the list. After its review by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the monument was safe from being cut down in size.

“It’s not a big deal when there’s a review,” said Claire Crowe, Ironwood’s Bureau of Land Management Monument Manager.

Usually, it just means there are questions that the Bureau of Land Management has to research and answer questions posed by the Department of the Interior. The Ironwood Forest National Monument, along with others, will actually be put under further review after the last one got passed over. “We can’t be proactive,” Crowe said. When reviews come, it is something the Bureau of Land Management has to do and not be too flustered by.

What was not anticipated was Zinke’s  suggestion that the monument be reopened for target shooting. A ban was passed five years ago after a long campaign.

Road sign used for target practice. Photo By: Miranda Rodriguez/ Arizona Sonora News Service

The Friends of Ironwood Forest and many of its visitors are against the idea of reinstating target shooting. They say it was dangerous, often left too much debris in the park and was damaging the property, including bruising saguaros.

Tom Hannagan, president of Friends of Ironwood Forest, explained that most visitors agree that target shooting is detrimental to the integrity and safety of the park.

Hannagan said that, while in the monument, volunteers and ranchers were concerned with the safety of having target shooting open. “They could hear bullets,” he said.

It’s also an even more risky situation as Hannagan described how bullets don’t have a place to sink in, so they have a tendency to ricochet off the rocky land and fly where they might be unwelcome, to say the least.

The target shooting also left the monument with trash, bullet casings and makeshift targets.

“It was really a mess.” Hannagan said. “Volunteers were picking stuff up, anything from washing machines to TVs.”

The group continues to clean around the monument every so often during Ironwood Forest Work Days. It also assists the Bureau of Land Management, and the rangers that rotate around the parkto make sure the land is being utilized correctly.  However, Hannagan said they are having to do less of a cleanup and “spend more of our time geocoding, taking inventory and doing plant restoration.”

The monument also has been known as a haven for drug and human trafficking, as well as illegal immigration. It is a passage on the way to Phoenix from Tucson and southern Arizona.  According to Hannagan, those incidents have decreased but there is still usually border patrol around.

Ironwood also has natural enemies. Buffelgrass, which is a known nuisance around the state for starting forest fires, is constantly being taken out of the area. And there are Africanized bees and poisonous snakes. There are no facilities, limited phone reception and the nearest hospitals are in Tucson and Casa Grande.

Even with the monument’s challenges, Hannagan is not too worried. The Friends of Ironwood Forest have actually seen a 30 percent increase in membership and are optimistic about the future.

There is a drive to work with the Bureau of Land Management to get more schools out in the monument for education and to continue to keep people interested in the land.

Ironwood is currently available for hiking, hunting and camping. The camping is “primitive” as there is no resource for a bathroom, water or electricity. The land is also open to cattle ranching.

Ironwood has gained popularity because it is home to petroglyphs, an indigenous herd of bighorn sheep, as well as an almost unparalleled biodiversity of plants and animals. There are nearly 600 species of plants. It also holds eight mountain ranges, including the most iconic, Ragged Top.

Hannagan described a big mix of activities. The monument attracts all kinds of recreationalists, from bird watchers and botany buffs to hunters and four-wheel drivers.

The remoteness is also a lure for photographers, especially in order to do night photography out in a barren desert landscape.

The land is really what you make it.

When the monument was under review there was an outpouring of calls to keep the monument intact. “Local people want it to stay the way it is,” said Hannagan.

University of Arizona Professor Stefano Bloch explained, “I would like to see no change, just as I would like to see little to no human involvement on the landscape in the form of signs, barriers or infrastructure.”

The public doesn’t seem to mind the lack of signage or marked trails. They appreciate the monument the way it is.

It seems that even with Ironwood’s rugged, untouched nature, it is still beloved and will continue on as a national monument meant not for the faint of heart.

Miranda Rodriguez is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School Of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at mmrodriguez1@email.arizona.edu. 

Click here for a word version of the story and high resolution photos.

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