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

Article excerpt

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 century.

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. …


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