Proposed Gila Bend Mountains National Conservation Area

Gila Bend Mountains
Gila Bend Mountains

Size: Approximately 406,298 acres

Located 70 miles southwest of downtown Phoenix lies the proposed Gila Bend Mountains National Conservation Area (proposed NCA). The northern portion of the proposed NCA is dominated by rugged peaks separated by valleys and a series of undeveloped wild lands. The southern portion of the proposed NCA contains the archeologically significant Gila River corridor and the geologically unique Sentinel Plain.

Existing Wilderness

The proposed Gila Bend Mountains NCA encompasses the existing Signal Mountain (13,400 acres), and Woolsey Peak (64,000 acres) wilderness areas, designated in 1990.

Proposed NCA

The NCA includes the following proposed wilderness units: Saddle Mountain (24,237 acres), East Clanton Hills (5,223 acres), Columbus Peak (8,877 acres), Cortez Peak (26,591 acres), Yellow Medicine Butte (18,412 acres), Dixie Peak (9,653 acres), and Red Rock Canyon (22,984 acres).

California leaf-nosed bat

California leaf-nosed bat;
Courtesy BLM

Wildlife, plants, and unique geologic features radiate out from the Gila River into the lowlands and mountains. This proposed NCA is home to a variety of amazingly adaptive plants considering the high temperatures and scant annual rainfall. Creosote bush, triangle-leaf bursage, ironwood, brittle bush, and chollas share the bajadas and plains. Saguaros, palo verde, ocotillo, and prickly pear cactus are found in the foothills and higher elevations.

The area also includes significant Sonoran Desert wildlife including desert bighorn sheep, Sonoran desert tortoise, mule deer, banded Gila monster, lowland leopard frog, Yuma clapper rail bird, raptors such as golden eagles and red tail hawks, and several types of bats. Webb Mountain’s abandoned Buckeye Copper Mine provides a significant roosting site for California leaf-nosed bats, a federal species of concern and an Arizona Game and Fish Department species of special concern.

The steep slopes of Saddle Mountain provide forage and make ideal lambing sites for desert bighorn sheep. The Saddle Mountain herd has become strong enough that in 2009 Arizona Game and Fish relocated five sheep from this population to the western Buckeye Hills. Locations such as Saddle Mountain and Webb Mountain act as critical corridors for wildlife, such as bighorn sheep and mule deer, which travel in a northwest-southeasterly route between the proposed wilderness and the existing Signal Mountain and Woolsey Peak wilderness areas.

Historic Significance

Gila Bend rock art

Olive Oatman survived her capture by the
Mohave and was released several years
later in a trade orchestrated by her brother.
Mohave tribal tattoos are visible on her face.

The proposed NCA is rich with prehistoric and historic trails and roadways. Agua Caliente Scenic Drive, winding through the northern section of the proposed NCA, was named for a hot spring used for medicinal and recreational purposes near the turn of the 20th century. Historically, the Butterfield Overland Stage Route passed through the proposed NCA along the Gila River, as did the expedition of Juan Bautista de Anza, who founded San Francisco, and the Mormon Battalion.

Oatman Flat, approximately 3 miles south of Oatman Mountain, was named after the pioneer family that was tragically massacred there. In 1851, the Oatman family of nine was traveling west and had stopped to replenish their resources. The family was attacked by a group of Apache, who killed all but three of the children. The two girls were taken captive and later sold as slaves to Mohave Indians and the badly injured boy was thrown over the edge of the flat into a small ravine. The young boy miraculously made his way back to the road and was eventually rescued. He refused to abandon the search for his sisters and in 1856 rescued his surviving sister (one of the girls died during the 5 years of captivity).

Archaeological Significance

Gila Bend rock art

Gila Bend rock art; © H. Wallace

The proposed Gila Bend Mountains NCA also has an amazing array of prehistoric sites that stretch from Saddle Mountain/Palo Verde Hills in the north to the Sentinel Plain in the south. The Saddle Mountain/Palo Verde Hills area has a range of prehistoric and historic remnants, including five National Register-eligible prehistoric sites and one proposed archeological district. Some sites studied showed activities that span more than 3,000 years.

The Painted Rock Petroglyph Site contains hundreds of symbolic and artistic rock etchings produced centuries ago by historic travelers passing through. There are also inscriptions made by people who passed through during historic times. Many well-known events in Arizona history occurred near the Petroglyph Site, including the expedition of Juan Bautista de Anza that founded San Francisco, the Mormon Battalion and the Butterfield Overland mail route.

The Sears Point area has at least two miles of basalt cliff edges that exhibit petroglyph panels. It is estimated that several thousand petroglyphs exist within the area. Many different design elements have been observed on these panels, including curvilinear, rectilinear, anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, abstract, and stylistic figures. In several places, flat basalt rocks were used for petroglyphs to mark trails. Several major petroglyph panels may be associated with Native American myths and legends.

Cultural Significance

The Gila River area is very important to the Hia Ced O’odham, the Pee Posh (Maricopa), the Tohono O’odham, the Akimel O’odham, the Colorado River tribes, the Hopi tribe, and other people native to this region. This area has always been a traditional cultural place, as a travel route, as a location for the gathering of food and other resources, and as a home.

Land Uses and Recreation

The proposed NCA is within the BLM’s Lower Sonoran Planning Area. The BLM currently manages this area under its general multiple use mandate allowing a variety of uses including motorized and non-motorized recreation, hunting, mining, and grazing.

Current land uses within the proposed NCA include recreational uses like hiking, wildlife viewing, photography, hunting, hang-gliding, and recreational off-highway driving as well as uses such as cattle grazing and small hard rock mining.

The proposed NCA is covered by parts of three different Arizona Game & Fish Department game management units (GMU). GMU 41, covering the western portion of the NCA, is home to the following game species: mule deer, bighorn sheep, quail, and dove. GMU 39, covering the eastern portion of the NCA, is home to the following game species: mule deer, bighorn sheep, water fowl, quail, and dove. GMU 40B, covering a small portion of the NCA south of I-8, is home to the following game species: mule deer, bighorn sheep, javelina, quail, and dove.

Benefits of a National Conservation Area Designation

Desert bighorn sheep

Desert bighorn sheep; © Dennis Sheridan

Lands within the proposed Gila Bend Mountains NCA are currently faced with a range of pressures that threaten the long term sustainability of the area’s fragile ecological, recreational, and cultural values.

With the substantial population growth in Arizona and the resulting urbanization pressures that followed, the West Valley is no longer as remote from Phoenix and other metropolitan centers as it was 10 years ago. Conflicts can occur when resource damaging activities are left unmanaged. Damages range from fragmentation of critical wildlife habitat for big game such as mule deer or big horn sheep to the destruction or theft of sensitive prehistoric artifacts and sites.

The creation of a national conservation area will preserve the ecological, recreational, and cultural values of the area for future generations. Protecting this fragile piece of Sonoran Desert and maintaining critical wildlife linkages will safeguard this important portion of western Maricopa County. Strong and vibrant lands enable traditional uses such as grazing and hunting to continue into the future. Keeping this land in public ownership and developing a comprehensive management plan will enable the BLM to manage the area in a way that sustains the natural values, balancing a range of uses from recreational off-road driving to bird watching. Permanent protection and stewardship of important archeological artifacts and sites will preserve an important piece of Arizona’s historic legacy for generations to come.