Southern Arizona Ranches Find New Life As Conservation Areas

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — A pair of ranches and a ghost town in southern Arizona will be conserved for wildlife and recreation under separate deals brokered recently by nonprofit land trusts.

Just over 7.8 square miles (20.2 square kilometers) of once-private land were purchased in Cochise and Graham counties to protect open spaces from development and improve public access to remote wildlands, the Arizona Daily Star r eports.

Under the largest of the two acquisitions, The Trust for Public Land acquired the Cross F Ranch in Graham County and turned it over to the federal agencies that manage the adjacent Aravaipa Canyon and Santa Teresa Mountains wilderness areas.

The deal, announced Nov. 1, includes about 4.8 square miles (12.5 square kilometers) of private land, 29.7 square miles (76.9 square kilometers) of federal grazing allotments and what’s left of the early 20th-century mining town of Aravaipa.

In 2015, Scottsdale-based Force Options 360 Tactical Training LLC announced plans to build a gun range and tactical training facility on the isolated property, but the proposal was scrapped amid fierce opposition from residents in the tiny, nearby community of Klondyke.

The Trust for Public Land paid $2.69 million for the ranch, then conveyed it to the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service as a public access point for another 62.50 square miles (161.9 square kilometers) ) of public land previously cut off from use by hikers, hunters and horseback riders.

“We’re all about conserving land for people,” said Michael Patrick, senior project manager for the San Francisco-based trust. “This project will protect an important landscape and provide thousands of acres of public access to these beautiful wild lands.”

Securing the ranch will also help preserve a network of natural springs that feeds into Aravaipa Creek and an important wildlife corridor used by desert bighorn sheep and other animals, Patrick said.

Cross F Ranch borders both the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation and The Nature Conservancy’s Aravaipa Canyon Preserve. As the crow flies, the area is only about 60 miles (96.6 kilometers) northeast of Tucson, but there is no direct way to get there. The shortest route covers more than 150 miles (241.4 kilometers) and involves driving to Willcox and heading northwest from there.

The trust partnered with the BLM, the Forest Service and Arizona Game and Fish Department to acquire the property for an undisclosed amount. Most of the money came from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a 55-year-old program that uses federal royalties from offshore oil and natural-gas production to pay for recreation and preservation projects.

Buying the ranch was the BLM’s top priority nationwide for Land and Water Conservation Fund projects during the 2020 federal fiscal year, Patrick said. “This has been a couple years in the works.”

He said the BLM is now in talks with the Graham County Historical Society to install interpretive signs at the Aravaipa townsite, where a few old buildings and headframes are all that remain of an early 1900s camp for roughly 100 silver, lead and copper miners.

Since 1972, The Trust for Public Land has protected more than 4,687 square miles (12,140 square kilometers) across the United States, including more than 60 projects and about 437.5 square miles (1,133 square kilometers) in Arizona.

The second recent land acquisition in southern Arizona involves 2.9 square miles (7.5 square kilometers) of Cochise County grassland along State Highway 82 east of Sonoita.

The Arizona Land and Water Trust announced its purchase there on Nov. 9.

The Tucson-based trust now owns 5.9 square miles (15.4 square kilometers) of the historic Rain Valley Ranch, which provides habitat for endangered species and a wildlife corridor that links the Huachuca, Mustang and Whetstone mountains.

The property about 60 miles (96.6 kilometers) southeast of Tucson will still be used for livestock grazing, but a conservation easement will prevent it from being broken up and developed into ranchettes or large-lot, single-family homes.

According to the trust, preserving the Rain Valley Ranch will also help the U.S. Army’s training mission at nearby Fort Huachuca by ensuring low levels of electromagnetic interference from the ground beneath its restricted airspace.

Since 1978, the Arizona Land and Water Trust has protected more than 97 square miles (253 square kilometers) throughout southern Arizona. The trust now holds more than 37 square miles (97 square kilometers) in conservation easements.