Proposed Belmont-Harquahala Mountains National Conservation Area

Sunrise on Big Horn Mountains
Sunrise on Big Horn Mountains; © Mark Miller

Size: Approximately 276,000 acres

The Belmont-Harquahala Mountains proposed NCA is located north of Interstate 10 between Tonopah and Aguila in western Maricopa County and includes portions of southeastern La Paz County. This area is within the Bureau of Land Management’s Bradshaw-Harquahala planning area. "Harquahala" is a variation of a Mohave word meaning "water there is high up" and refers to the natural springs in the backcountry.

Existing Wilderness

The Belmont-Harquahala Mountains proposed NCA encompasses the existing Harquahala Mountains, Hummingbird Springs, and Big Horn Mountains wilderness areas, designated by the Arizona Desert Wilderness Act in 1990 and totaling approximately 75,000 acres of land.

Proposed Wilderness

Desert tortoise

Desert tortoise; Courtesy USFWS

Proposed new wilderness for the NCA includes the Hummingbird Springs Addition (11,863), Hummingbird Plain (5,135), Belmont Mountains East (11,132) and Belmont Mountains West (7,779).

These wilderness additions are some of the most remote and intact lands in the region and would connect existing wilderness areas to one another, significantly enhancing wildlife habitat connectivity and protection of historic and cultural sites.

Cactus wren

Cactus wren; © Mark Miller

The entire proposed NCA is a classic example of the Arizona upland habitat type found in the northern reaches of the Sonoran Desert. This is the iconic habitat type most people think of when they think of Arizona deserts: stately Saguaro cactus (Arizona state flower), palo verde trees (Arizona state tree), prickly pear and barrel cactus, creosote flats, rocky slopes and craggy canyons, narrow riparian stretches of cottonwoods, acacias, mesquites, the call of gila woodpeckers, the trill of cactus wren (Arizona state bird), the occasional sighting of a diamondback rattlesnake or gila monster.

The proposed Belmont-Harquahala Mountains NCA is an important link in a chain of critical core habitat for wildlife traveling through the West Valley desert, north to the Bradshaw Mountains and higher elevations of northern Arizona and the Colorado Plateau.

Historic Significance

Atop the summit of Harquahala Mountain is an old Smithsonian Institution Observatory, built in the 1920s to fulfill the vision of Samuel Pierpont Langley and the notion of a “solar constant”. His protégé, Charles G. Abbot, a pioneer in solar research, chose Harquahala Peak for its clear skies and low humidity to carry out Langley’s hypotheses. Today, the partially-restored structure is fenced and interpretive signs (some of which need replacing) tell the story of the observatory in its role as a research station and as a link in the heliograph communications network (sending Morse code messages between summit stations using sunlight bounced from mirrors). How Abbot and his new wife and their hired assistants worked, lived, and relaxed on this rugged, windswept peak—struggling with its seclusion and erratic weather—represents an enlivened story of dedicated scientific pursuit and American inventiveness.

Land Uses and Recreation

Coyote

Coyote; Courtesy USFWS

The proposed NCA is within the BLM’s Lower Sonoran Planning Area. The BLM currently manages this area under its general multiple use mandate that allows a variety of uses including motorized and non-motorized recreation, hunting, mining, and grazing. Current land uses within the proposed Belmont-Harquahala Mountains NCA include hunting, recreational off-highway driving, hiking, bird watching, cattle grazing, and small hardrock mining.

The proposed NCA’s rugged terrain and diverse flora and fauna attract a range of recreationists including hikers, wildlife viewers, off-highway vehicle riders, equestrians, and hunters.
The proposed NCA is covered by parts of two different Arizona Game & Fish game management units (GMU). GMU 42, covering the portion of the NCA east of Eagle Eye Road, is home to the following game species: mule deer, quail, dove, javelin, and cottontail rabbit. GMU 44A, covering a small portion of the NCA west of Eagle Eye Road, is home to the following game species: mule deer, bighorn sheep, quail, and dove.

Benefits of a National Conservation Area Designation

Mule deer herd

Mule deer herd;
Courtesy USFWS

With the increasing population growth of Arizona and California, and the increasing urbanization pressures that accompany that growth, the West Valley is no longer as remote from Phoenix and other metropolitan centers as it was even 10 years ago. The towns west of Phoenix — Goodyear, Avondale, Buckeye, Surprise, Peoria, and Wickenburg — have grown significantly in that time. Indeed, additional subdivision, commercial, and transportation infrastructure is already planned for areas adjacent to the proposed boundaries of these once-remote, still-intact public lands. Further, increased power generation and the accompanying transmission lines in the lowland valley south of the area along Interstate 10, pose habitat fragmentation risks to the area as a whole.

Population growth projected for Maricopa County will bring with it a host of impacts, which will increasingly impact this fragile environment in negative and permanent ways. To balance this growth, we must value quiet and primitive recreational opportunities and protect naturally functioning ecosystems for the wildlife that depend on them and the people who find recreation within them. The proposed Harquahala Mountains NCA will be an area where future generations of Arizonans can go to enjoy the natural heritage of the region in its best form.

Preserving the natural functioning ecosystems of this fragile northern expanse of the Sonoran Desert requires a collaborative approach that includes cooperative and progressive work with private and state landowners, developers, and other entities to provide wildlife connectivity between the public land core habitat areas. The proposed Belmont-Harquahala Mountains NCA is integral to the solution.