Reclamation, Ranching, and Reservation: Environmental, Cultural, and Governmental Rivalries in Transitional Arizona

By Sowards, Adam M. | Journal of the Southwest, Autumn 1998 | Go to article overview

Reclamation, Ranching, and Reservation: Environmental, Cultural, and Governmental Rivalries in Transitional Arizona


Sowards, Adam M., Journal of the Southwest


In the spring of 1996, Tonto National Forest burned spectacularly. The Lone Fire swept over 61,000 acres, much of which was within the Four Peaks Wilderness Area. During the week of the fire, the issue of appropriate land use captured the media's attention, as well as the attention of government agencies, Tonto's ranching community, and nearby Phoenix residents. The Bureau of Reclamation and the Forest Service worried about the effects of the fire on Salt River Project reservoirs and wildlife habitat. Ranchers worried about the potential loss of livestock and forage. Citizens also worried about damage to their wilderness playground, for the forest's proximity to Phoenix made it a popular destination for urban recreationists. The "gray haze and acrid odor [hanging] over the Valley of the Sun" forced Salt River Valley residents indoors. Indeed, the fire's greatest impact seemed to be its urban connection. This fire, Arizona's largest since at least the Second World War, illuminated many historic themes of the Tonto. It affected ranching, the long-time economic and cultural focus of Tonto; it touched the governmental agencies in charge of administering both the forest and rivers that constituted the Tonto National Forest and Salt River Project; most of all, it underscored the significance Tonto held for the neighboring Salt River Valley and its residents. These factions were the progeny of a century-long social and economic rivalry. Thus, today's environmental battleground remains inextricably linked to the past.(1)

The history of the region reveals much about the current configuration of Arizona. In an interview given during the Depression, longtime Tonto Basin rancher John Cline recalled, "When the Forest Service came in, I just laughed. I told them I would just like to see them come in and tell me. I thought I was boss." In his reference to the 1905 reservation of the Tonto National Forest in central Arizona, Cline echoed the sentiment of many Westerners then and now. After subsisting for many decades free from all but nominal governmental restrictions on their agricultural economy, ranchers resented the growing federal presence in administering and managing the West's land and natural resources. Although Cline's remark reflects an antipathy toward federal restrictions, others saw federal intervention as the region's saving grace. In Arizona, farmers in the Salt River Valley especially desired federal assistance to build irrigation projects dependent upon large dams on the Salt River and later on the Verde River. These different perspectives about federal power and management of natural resources not only reverberated in Arizona but throughout the American West.(2)

Those resources, mainly rangelands and water storage, carry paramount significance for Arizona's past. Two of the state's cornerstone four C's---cattle and cotton--depended upon an abundant grassland and a regular supply of water for irrigation.(3) As a center of the state's livestock industry and as the major watershed of the Salt and Verde Rivers, the Tonto region's environment prominently affected Arizona's growth. At the same time, Arizona's growth profoundly influenced Tonto's development. The history of those resources, how settlers used and abused them, and why the federal government reserved the land forms a central component to any study of Arizona and informs the broader outlines of the Western past.

This investigation is one of transitions--both physical and historical. At an elevation of 7,000 feet, the Mogollon Rim, a vertical rock escarpment between 1,000 and 2,000 feet high, forms the southern edge of the immense Colorado Plateau and the northern boundary of Tonto National Forest. The rim effectively delimits the ecology of central Arizona, forming the state's geologic seam. Along the Mogollon Rim stands the largest continuous ponderosa pine forest in the world. Moving south from the plateau, the Verde River and Tonto Creek drain the Mazatzal Mountains and the Sierra Ancha range while watering the desert grassland that blankets the region's wide basins. …

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Reclamation, Ranching, and Reservation: Environmental, Cultural, and Governmental Rivalries in Transitional Arizona
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