Magazine article Sunset

San Pedro River: A Rare Year-Round Riparian Area in Arizona

Magazine article Sunset

San Pedro River: A Rare Year-Round Riparian Area in Arizona

Article excerpt

If you're a birder, you know the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area; nearly half the species in the Lower 48 have been spotted here. If you're an archaeologist, you know that this may be one of the longest continuously inhabited spots in North America. And if you're a Western history buff, you know this river valley for the legendary figures who have lived here and as the site of the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral.

But if you're anyone else, you might be wondering just what the San Pedro River is. And where.

The where is relatively simple - the San Pedro runs 110 undammed miles from Mexico through a broad valley east of Tucson before reaching its confluence with the Gila River.

The what is a bit more complicated: oasis, highway, and historical archive. All that on a river whose flow is little more than a trickle in stretches, disappearing underground in some areas.

A river of comparable size in the Pacific Northwest would barely merit comment. But the San Pedro is a rare desert river, as precious as any of the West's seemingly grander places that get enshrined as national parks.

A 40-mile stretch of the San Pedro River, comprising 56,000 acres, is administered by the BLM as a riparian national conservation area, one of the nation's first. This designation affords the San Pedro a high level of protection; grazing, mining, and off-road vehicle activity have either been entirely eliminated or curtailed since 1988.

"The habitat has had surprising resilience," says Bill Childress, a program manager with the BLM. "It rebounded faster than we could have anticipated. This is less than 1 percent of the state, but 80 percent of the state's bird species are found here. …

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