Las Cienegas National Conservation Area

Las Cienagas National Conservation Area by Jonathan Adams

Cienega Creek rises in Arizona’s Sonoita Valley and flows north toward Tucson, between the Sky Islands of the Santa Rita and Whetstone mountains. Near its source, Cienega Creek flows through high desert grasslands, some of the best examples of native grasslands that remain in Arizona and ideal habitat for a host of native species. Three native fish species, all officially endangered, call the Cienega Creek home, and nearly two hundred species of birds have been identified nearby. Cattle, introduced here in large numbers in the 1820s, also roam these arid lands. From the Civil War era until the late 1980s, much of the Sonoita Valley was private ranch land, including two huge operations, the Empire and Cienega ranches.

Just twenty miles southeast of booming Tucson’s borders, Cienega Creek flows under Interstate 10, and the situation changes. The state of Arizona owns most of the land just north of the highway and leases it for cattle grazing, largely to raise money for public schools. By law, the state must generate the highest return possible from these lands; in some cases, that may mean selling to a developer who would replace the cattle with houses. Beyond these state trust lands farther to the north lie Saguaro National Park and the Rincon Wilderness, part of Coronado National Forest. So while lands to the north and south are protected, the portion of the creek along the interstate runs through areas important for conservation but also ripe for development. A piece of the puzzle is missing.

The story of how the Empire and Cienega ranches became the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, how the missing link may finally be found, and how they came to be seen as pieces in the conservation puzzle in the first place has much to tell us about protected areas, science, community, and the need to plan for and carry out broad-scale conservation. The intersection of science and community may be the most hopeful place in modern conservation.

In the late 1980s, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) acquired the Empire and Cienega ranches in Sonoita Valley through a series of land swaps. The BLM leased grazing land in what was called the Empire-Cienega Resource Management Area to ranchers Mac and John Donaldson, father and son, from Sonoita. The Donaldsons would become leaders of an effort to keep the ranch in operation while maintaining its scenic and ecological value.

While the Donaldsons were out ahead of most of their neighbors in terms of running an ecologically sensitive ranch, the rest of the Sonoita Valley community was not that far behind. They created several community organizations, one of which, the Sonoita Valley Planning Partnership, began working with the BLM on a management plan for the resource management area.

The idea of allowing communities living near and using public lands to have a major say in how those lands are managed has become a common approach to conservation in the developing world—with distinctly mixed results—but it remains the exception in the United States. At Las Cienegas, the community-based approach to the management plan began with a focus on the 43,000-acre resource management area and grew from there.

The community developed a landscape vision of conservation for Cienega Creek that extended far beyond the BLM land, across I-10 and all the way to the Rincon Wilderness Area. The additional land was largely state trust land and enlarged the planning area to about 140,000 acres. The community wanted the whole thing designated a national conservation area (NCA), a congressional designation meant to conserve particularly important BLM lands for their exceptional natural, recreational, cultural, wildlife, aquatic, archaeological, paleontological, historical, educational, and scientific resources.

With all the community support for Las Cienegas, the proposed NCA got bipartisan support and endorsements from environmentalists, ranchers, even real estate developers. In 1999, Congress unanimously passed a bill to create the Las Cienegas NCA, an unheard-of event. Even more remarkably, the bill passed at a time when western congressional delegations scowled at the very mention of a new protected area under federal control.

Despite the federal land ownership, this is bottom-up rather than top-down conservation. The people of Sonoita essentially created the national conservation area, and they intend to remain involved. If the BLM backtracks or fails to live up to its responsibilities, the community will respond. Far more than the rules governing the national conservation area, it is the commitment of the people living near Cienega Creek that holds promise. Communities of people committed to husbanding land for generations so that it sustains life—cultivated and wild—form the foundation of lasting conservation.

Excerpted from Conservation for a New Generation, by Rick Knight and Courtney White, eds. Copyright © 2009 Island Press. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

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