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Singing birds, flowing waters: Arizona’s San Pedro riparian NCA

A green canopy above the San Pedro River can be seen in late spring and also from the air. (Photo courtesy of Eco-Flight)

After a wet snowy winter, maybe it is time to head south to Arizona, soak up some sun and listen to migratory bird songs. We think of the Bureau of Land Management as owning thousands of acres of canyons, cliffs and deserts, but it also owns riparian areas.

One of the most remarkable is southern Arizona’s San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area at 57,000 acres and 40 miles of San Pedro river bottom. What’s amazing is that up until the 1980s, the BLM didn’t own a single acre of it.

A birder’s paradise, nearly half of all the nation’s birds have been found along that rare river corridor chirping beneath willows and a tall cottonwood canopy. The San Pedro is “one of the world’s rarest treasures: a desert river,” says author and naturalist Ralph Waldt who adds, “To a biologist, an ecologist, or a naturalist, the San Pedro Watershed is one of the most phenomenally rich and precious places in all of America, hosting an astounding diversity of life.”

Imagine 450 birds, both locals and those passing through, sharing space with Gila monsters, ocelots, coati-mundis and the occasional fleeting jaguar. Mammal species are abundant at 90 native species, including Coues’ deer, black bear and cougars, and the bird life is extraordinary and includes parrots and rare hawks.

Nominated as one of the “Last Great Places” by the Nature Conservancy, the National Audubon Society considers the San Pedro to be an IBA or an Important Bird Area. The American Bird Conservancy named the San Pedro the organization’s first “globally important bird area.” Caught between desert mountain ranges like the Dragoons, Huachucas, Whetstones, and Santa Catalinas, the river begins 20 miles south in Mexico and flows 140 miles north into Arizona close to the town of Sierra Vista and the U.S. Army’s historic military base at Fort Huachuca.

A Belted Kingfisher photo by wildlife biologist Bob Luce who says, “The San Pedro is a river like no other, and one of only two rivers that flow north out of Mexico into the U.S. It is the last major, free-flowing undammed river in the American Southwest, and is of immeasurable ecological importance.” (Photo by Bob Luce)

The landscape was all part of a Spanish land grant and includes the abandoned adobe Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate (1775-1780) established by a rogue Irishman working for the Spanish named Hugo O’Conor. He earned the rank of colonel. I have walked around the site’s former jacal structures with their stone foundations and woven wood walls and I’ve seen remnants of adobe rooms where soldier sentries stood and searched for swift-moving Apaches who continually harassed and attacked the fort.

More than 250 historic and prehistoric sites have been identified within the San Pedro River NCA, including rare Clovis-era mammoth kill sites from 11,000 years ago, making the cultural history of the area as important as its unique natural history. But how did the river corridor transition from land grant to private property to public lands?

To answer that question, I had to track down Dean Bibles, former state BLM director in Arizona, Oregon and Washington. He had a tale to tell as colorful as the rare birds found along the river like the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Green Kingfisher, Bell’s Vireo, Lucy’s Warbler and Abert’s Towhee. His story began with his son’s passion for the elusive Gray Hawk.

“Dad, you need to do something about the San Pedro,” his son Brent, a wildlife major at Utah State University, said in August 1985. “It is extremely important habitat for the Gray Hawk and the area’s going to become condominiums.”

Brent Bibles was doing a valuable survey of hawk nests and habitat. The oil company Tenneco owned acres of the river bottom, and Dean Bibles and Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt agreed that something should be done.

The BLM often doesn’t get much credit for landscape preservation. Environmentalists hammer the BLM about too many cows and too much over grazing, too many acres leased for oil and gas, but just as within the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, there have been extraordinary individuals willing to take a long view and to look out for valuable natural resources and irreplaceable landscapes. Those staff members deserve much credit. Their stories are usually unknown. Dean Bibles fits that category, and this story has a happy ending.

Former BLM Arizona State Director Dean Bibles speaks at the 30th anniversary of the creation of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. (Courtesy of Dean Bibles)

The BLM was created by President Harry Truman in 1946 by merging the General Land Office with the Grazing Service. The land the BLM came to manage, close to 245 million acres in eleven Western states and Alaska, no one wanted. All the higher elevation grasslands and mountain parks became U.S. Forest Service and those American acres with spectacular scenery fell to the National Park Service. The BLM really didn’t receive its own identity and mission from Congress until 1976 with passage of the Federal Land Policy Management Act, but by that time a major demographic shift had begun.

In the 19th century, Americans came west in covered wagons. In the 20th century, they drove station wagons full of noisy children who would grow up in Phoenix, Las Vegas, Grand Junction, St. George, Tucson and other Western cities. The BLM owned no land near Sierra Vista and the San Pedro River, but it didn’t need to. By the mid1980s, Sunbelt cities exploded with new residents, and desert developers sought more adjacent land. BLM had plenty of it.

A land swap with Tenneco for the San Pedro riparian corridor did not seem possible, but perhaps a third-party exchange would be successful. It was on March 8, 1986.

“This is the way government is supposed to work for the American people,” Dean Bibles says. He feels he was lucky to be working during “the Golden Years” of political compromise.

He remembers, “There was little or no party rancor within the Arizona delegation because they could decide what was best for Arizona and the nation and go for it,” he says. “The Arizona delegation would get together either in Sen. Goldwater’s office or Congressman Mo Udall’s office to discuss what needed to be done and how they would make things happen and once they decided, it would happen!”

Because of the willingness of politicians to cooperate, land that the BLM had never owned became protected not only for all Americans, but for millions of birds that fly the San Pedro River corridor each year. For the National Park Service, a vote in Congress creates new national parks. For the BLM, a Congressional vote establishes and designates National Conservation Areas. And to think it all began because of a young college student’s keen interest in Gray Hawks.

Brent Bibles returned to the San Pedro to do additional research and eventually to earn a Ph.D. dissertation on the Gray Hawk, so of course I had to try to see one. It was late March when I visited the Gray Hawk Nature Center to meet director Sandy Anderson. She had given me explicit instructions on the phone about where to park and how to meet her. I’d heard of her love and respect for rattlesnakes and Gila monsters, so I was a little shy about leaving my car, but I appreciated her offer to stay in her bunkhouse overnight.

Anderson came out with a warm smile and a firm handshake and after a few lessons on birding etiquette, off we went down the river listening for the distinctive whistle of a Gray Hawk. When I placed my things in her bunkhouse she said, “There’s a fresh snake track on the road from this morning. Must be a young rattler. It’s our first warm day. Be careful where you put your hands and feet.” Forewarned, I followed her as closely as I could.

Birding expert and tour guide Sandy Anderson poses with her slow-moving Gila Monster. Anderson is licensed to keep and rehabilitate rare and threatened species. (Andrew Gulliford/The Durango Herald)

“I came to Arizona to be a bird guide. This is my last year guiding. I’ve got a bum knee. My ears are going. I’ve put together lots of bird tours. I bird mostly with my ears, which take awhile to get up to speed in spring,” she said as we walked the riverbank within what she called her “57,000-acre backyard.”

Anderson railed against owls when we spied a Great-horned owl in a Zonetail hawk’s nest. “Last year, the bastards killed and ate at least two Gray Hawks,” she complained.

Anderson also spoke up about local county commissioners worrying more about jobs and Sierra Vista suburban growth than about protecting the San Pedro’s water flow and its deeply tapped aquifers. She called them “the county board of stupefizers.” Later in the afternoon, she heard a Gray Hawk and quickly pointed to where it perched in a tangle of leafless branches. Binoculars in hand, I couldn’t find it, but then I saw it fly and alight.

I marveled at its size and small shape and I thought about how important it was that a son had shared his love of this hawk species with his father. As humans we can damage and destroy but we can also protect. Landscape level protection is now one of the key goals of the BLM’s National Conservation Lands system, and we are all the beneficiaries.

Andrew Gulliford is an award-winning author and editor and a professor of history at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu.

Gila Woodpecker (Photo by Bob Luce)