The serene area of the Ironwood Forest National Monument has been protected and managed by the Bureau of Land Management for the past 10 years. Now, BLM is looking to the future, and what may happen on the unique wilderness that awaits visitors a few miles west of Marana.
The monument encompasses about 128,400 acres of land with dense populations of ironwood trees, saguaros, creosote bushes and hundreds of other species of plants and animals.
Throughout the monument, speckled with "primitive camping areas," which means no established facilities, there are areas where visitors can hike, mountain bike, hunt, bird watch, sight-see, drive a loop-dirt road, and see petroglyphs and a cemetery created many years ago.
"The focus out here is really on the undeveloped primitive recreation experience where you come out and see the area kind of on your own terms," said Mark Lambert, monument manager with BLM. "You're not guided, necessarily, by anybody. The resources are out here, the environment is out here, and you experience it the way you want to experience it."
About 15,000 to 18,000 visitors make their way to the monument each year. Without the help of volunteers, BLM's small staff at Ironwood Forest could not oversee it all. Friends of Ironwood Forest volunteer time in monitoring, visiting and cleaning up the monument, removing overgrown invasive plants like buffelgrass, and cleaning up the waste left in the wake of human and drug smuggling.
"Without a partnership with them, there would be so much we wouldn't be able to do," Lambert said, referring to the Arizona Big Horn Society, hunting groups and the Friends of Ironwood Forest. "We couldn't be where we are today without their help."
Over the coming years, BLM looks to partner with the Town of Marana. In town, BLM would hopefully place a visitors center along with signs letting people know where the monument is and how to get to it.
BLM is also looking to put interpretive panels, giving visitors bits of information about the things they are seeing as they travel the forest.
In the midst of the growth and expansion, visitors and officials are dealing with threats, such as a restriction or ban on target shooting within the boundaries. BLM may also limit the locations people can and can't walk and drive off-road vehicles, all with the intent to protect the monument's resources. And BLM is dealing daily with drug and human smuggling issues.
On BLM's website, it warns of illegal activity, saying the forest lies "adjacent to 44 miles of the international border with Mexico. Visitors should be aware that narcotic smuggling activities occur within this national monument. If you see any activity that looks illegal, suspicious, or out of place, please do not intervene."
The website also cites tips for visitors, like keeping vehicles locked, along with keeping valuables – including pocket change – out of sight. Officials also caution of spotty cell phone coverage.
Lambert said the challenges BLM is facing are public information about the park, and restoration of damaged areas by both people and buffelgrass.
"It is a tough balance to let people know it exists, and visit it, but keep the wild character," Lambert said. "It is a delicate process. Some people might go out and look for a place that has facilities ,while other enjoy the raw experience."
BLM intends to keep the Ironwood Forest National Monument raw, no matter how popular the location becomes.