As if on cue, the ironwood trees are adorned in annual pink and lavender blossoms for the 10th anniversary of the Ironwood Forest National Monument, the preserve west of Marana that protects 129,000 acres encompassing multiple mountain ranges, nearly 700 plant and animal species, ancient human history and the Sonoran Desert's highest density of ironwood trees.
Ten years ago, on June 9, 2000, President Bill Clinton designated 129,000 acres of land as the Ironwood Forest National Monument, including the Silver Bell, Waterman and Sawtooth mountain ranges.
On Saturday night, Friends of the Ironwood Forest were joined by local, state and national environmental and government leaders in celebrating a decade of protection.
"It's important to get the word out to the public what a jewel you guys have here," said Michael Taylor, deputy state director for resources at the Bureau of Land Management.
"It's a special, really cool place, and it's right over there," said Mike Quigley, president of the Friends of Ironwood Forest.
Marcilynn Burke, deputy director of programs and facilities for BLM in Washington, D.C., came to Tucson last weekend to see it for herself. It was "an opportunity I could not pass up," a chance to eschew the Blackberry for some of America's most rare habitat. Taylor and monument manager Mark Lambert took Burke on a tour through the monument.
"It was worth the heat," Lambert said.
They went to the base of iconic Ragged Top, with its "quintessential view of the Sonoran Desert." They saw a desert big horn sheep. The monument is home to a herd of between 60 and 70 desert big horns, believed to be "the last native desert herd in the Tucson basin," Lambert said.
"We look at it as an awesome resource," Taylor said of the herd. The monument restricts human use on Ragged Top during lambing season. The herd is managed by the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
They saw an old graveyard, an old mining town, archaeological districts, and remnants of Mission Santa Ana. And they saw "a bunch of ironwoods in full bloom." The party stopped at one, a lushly blooming ironwood engulfed with bees, butterflies and beetles.
"You could hear the tree," Taylor said. "The tree was alive."
The ironwood, which can live more than 800 years, is "a cultural and ecological keystone plant of the Sonoran Desert," guest speaker and author Gary Nabhan told the audience. Ironwoods are a nurse plant, "essential to the entire region of desert flora, and the harboring of desert fauna. The ironwood creates a dark gap. Plants of the desert need to germinate in dark, moist soil you find under an ironwood, or a mesquite."
And they saw officers with the Border Patrol. Illegal activities from human and drug smuggling are a threat to the monument, Lambert said.
"We deal with it every day," said Lambert. Three interns from the Student Conservation Association work full-time to "mitigate the impacts" of garbage and new roads. Lambert said people should feel safe on the monument.
"Anyone who wants to go out there, we mention it," he said. "In the day, they should be fine." And, if visitors come upon migrants, "95 percent of the time, nothing happens. They want to be left alone. Don't let it drive you away."
The Clinton / Bruce Babbitt proclamation creating Ironwood Forest National Monument lists specific resources within the monument that BLM must protect, among them the sheep, desert tortoises, the Sonoran Desert views and the ironwood tree.
"It is an incredible, biologically diverse area," Taylor said.
"Secretary Babbitt chose BLM to manage these particular monuments," Lambert said. They exist for "a different reason, a different way of management" than a national park. There is not a visitors center, there are not developed trailheads. "It's almost more of a hands off," Lambert said. "These areas are designated for protection of resources. People can enjoy them, but almost on their own terms."
"There are areas we want you to stay out of," places with special archaeology, for example, Burke said. "Otherwise, you are on your own," to pursue "the backcountry experience so many of us seek."
"We don't even have a picnic bench, and we don't intend to put one there," Lambert said.
Still, as the monument matures, "we are trying to provide a little more interpretation," through signage and trailhead markings, he continued. A management plan for Ironwood Forest National Monument is close to completion. Through it, BLM is trying to find a balance, "a tipping point," the "limit of acceptable change," Taylor said. "That's the challenge, and the art of it, too."
"It's a living document," Burke said. "We will continue to monitor the landscape, and adopt our management to deal with whatever the circumstances may be."
"We don't get enough visitors to where we're really, really concerned about heavy use," Lambert said. "It may become a real popular spot. If we double our visitations, we have to respond to that." But, he points out, "too many people in Tucson have never even heard of the place." And those that do, and who visit, "really appreciate it."
On Saturday night, Quigley mentioned the pivotal people in the monument's designation.
"We are here to celebrate this evening a key victory in that long, arduous path toward doing the right thing," he said. Clinton's designation was "a watershed moment."
Ironwood trees "weren't much on anyone's screen, 15, 20 years ago," Nabhan said. "To see such respect and engagement with the tree, and the landscape, is a miracle in itself."
Nabhan spoke several times about the confluence of science and advocacy that has protected the Ironwood Forest National Monument. Many contributed, and he gave several mentions to the late Maeveen Marie Behan.
"She personified that collaboration gets us further along than confrontation," Nabhan said. "Maeveen stitched together the parts."
"The feeling I have is 'what foresight you had to create this monument,'" Lambert told the Friends gathering. When proposals arise, such as an I-10 bypass or a major transmission line, "because of the designation, it's got a kind of big force field around it."
Repeatedly Saturday, people spoke of partnerships. Burke noted the "importance of having a friends group to promote and protect what we're here to celebrate." She expressed her thanks "to be here to share this momentous occasion with you."
Her choice of adjective was lost on no one.
Ironwood Forest National Monument
• 129,000 acres, managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management, all of it west of Marana.
• Accessible off Avra Valley and Silverbell roads.
• Ironwood Forest National Monument is part of the National Landscape Conservation System, landscapes set aside "for their nationally significant cultural, ecological and scientific values."