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Environmental Conditions of the Southeastern Arizona Planning Area - Threatened and Endangered Species, Protected Areas and Unique Waters

Environmental conditions reflect the impacts of geography, climate and cultural activities and may be a critical consideration in water resource management and supply development.  The sky island ecosystems of the planning area are relatively isolated from each other, and as a result there are a large number of endemic species in the planning area mountain ranges.  These ecosystems are of major interest to resource managers due to their biological diversity and distinct biogeography. (Warshall, 2006)  Discussed in this section is vegetation, riparian protection through the Arizona Water Protection Fund Program, instream flow claims, threatened and endangered species, protected areas and unique waters.

Threatened and Endangered Species

A number of listed threatened and endangered species may be present in the Southeastern Arizona Planning Area. Those listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) as of 2008 are shown in Table 3.0-2.  Presence of a listed species may be a critical consideration in water resource management and supply development in a particular area.  The USFWS should be contacted for details regarding the Endangered Species Act (ESA), designated critical habitat and current listings.


National Parks, Monuments and Memorials, Wildlife Refuges, National Conservation Areas, Wilderness Areas and other Protected Areas

Protected areas are shown in Figure 3.0-12. There are parts of one national park, a national monument, a national memorial, a national conservation area, two riparian conservation areas, two wildlife refuges and fifteen wilderness areas in the planning area.

An almost 9,000-acre portion of the Rincon Mountain District of Saguaro National Park extends into the Lower San Pedro Basin. The park was established as a national monument in 1933 to protect Saguaro cactus forests, and achieved national park status in 1994. Much of the Rincon Mountain District is wilderness area.

The planning area contains Chiricahua National Monument and Coronado National Memorial. The monument, located almost entirely in the Willcox Basin, was created in 1924 to protect its unique rock formations. In 1976, 87% of the monument’s approximately 12,000 acres were designated as wilderness to further preserve the geologic formations and unique plants and animals. (NPS, 2006)  Coronado National Memorial, located primarily in the Upper San Pedro Basin adjacent to the Mexican border, commemorates the significance of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado’s expedition of 1540-1542. The Memorial was created in 1941 and has two sister parks in Mexico. (NPS, 2007)

Figure 3.0-12 Southeastern Arizona Planning Area Protected Areas

Click to view larger image



Leslie Canyon NWR

Leslie Canyon National Wildlife Refuge, Douglas and Willcox Basins

The two National Wildlife Refuges (NWR) in the planning area are the San Bernardino NWR in the San Bernardino Valley Basin and Leslie Canyon NWR located in the Douglas and Willcox Basins. Both refuges were established in the 1980s to protect water resources and habitat for endangered native fishes and rare velvet ash-cottonwood-black willow gallery forest. (USFWS, 2006)

The only two Riparian National Conservation Areas in the nation are found in the planning area: the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (SPRNCA) and the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area. The SPRNCA was established in November 1988 and contains about 40 miles of riparian area along the San Pedro River in the Upper San Pedro Basin.  It includes over 58,000 acres of land between the international border with Mexico and the community of Saint David south of Benson. The primary purpose for the designation is to protect and enhance the desert riparian ecosystem (BLM, 2006a).  The 22,000 acre Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area was established in November 1990 to “conserve, protect, and enhance” the riparian and associated values of the area. The conservation area is located within the Bonita Creek, Duncan Valley, Morenci and Safford basins. Four perennial waterways, the Gila River, Bonita Creek, Eagle Creek, and the San Francisco River are contained in the area.  A 15-mile segment of Bonita Creek and 23 miles of the Gila River are included in the conservation area (BLM, 2006b).

The Las Cienegas National Conservation Area was established in December 2000 and encompasses about 45,000 acres.  Most of the conservation area is located between the Empire and Whetstone mountain ranges generally north of Sonoita within the Cienega Creek Basin.  A small part of the conservation area extends into the Upper San Pedro Basin. The conservation area was designated to protect aquatic, wildlife, vegetative and riparian resources. Livestock grazing and recreation are allowed to continue in “appropriate” areas.  Goals include protecting water quality and water quantity. (BLM, 2006c). 

All or portions of 15 wilderness areas with a combined area of 318,797 acres, are located in the planning area. Wilderness Areas are designated under the 1964 Wilderness Act to preserve and protect the designated area in its natural condition.  Designated wilderness areas, their size, basin location and a brief description of the area are listed in Table 3.0-3.

Table 3.0-3 Wilderness areas in the Southeastern Arizona Planning Area

Wilderness Area Acres in the Planning Area Basin Description
Aravaipa Canyon 19,410 Aravaipa Canyon 11-mile long Aravaipa Canyon, surrounding tablelands and nine side canyons. 
Chiricahua* 87,700 Willcox, Safford Sharp ridges, high peaks, including Chiricahua Peak  (9,797 ft), and deep canyons.  Largest mountain range of the sky islands.
Dos Cabezas Mountains 11,700 Safford Steep mountain slopes, granite outcroppings and vegetated canyon floors.



Morenci Mountain meadows and Escudilla Mountain (10,912 ft).
Fishhooks 10,500 Safford Pinon pine forest, grassland, chaparral and canyons.
Galiuro 76,317 Aravaipa Canyon, Lower San Pedro, Upper San Pedro, Willcox Douglas-fir, big tooth maple and aspen trees, canyons and peaks.
Miller Peaks 20,190 San Rafael, Upper San Pedro Sheer cliffs, summits and deep canyons. Habitats ranging from desert grassland to mixed conifer and aspen forest. 
Mount Wrightson



Cienega Creek Deep canyons, ridges and peaks surrounded by semiarid hills and grasslands.  Ponderosa pine, douglas fir and montane Mexican plants that grow nowhere else north of the border
Needles Eye 8,760 Dripping Springs Wash Gila River, Needle's Eye canyon and riparian areas. 
North Santa Teresa 5,800 Safford Contains the Black Rock, a 1,000 ft high rhyolitic plug, desert and mountain shrub, grassland and riparian vegetation. 
Peloncillo Mountains 19,440 Duncan Valley, Safford Desert shrub grasslands to oak juniper woodlands in the higher reaches of the Peloncillo Mountains.
Redfield Canyon 6,600 Lower San Pedro, Upper San Pedro Galiuro escarpment, canyons and perennial streams.



Cienega Creek, Upper San Pedro, Lower San Pedro Vegetation varies with elevation and includes desert scrub, desert grassland, oak woodland, pine-oak woodland, pine forest and mixed conifer forest.
Santa Teresa 26,780 Safford, Aravaipa Canyon Deep canyons, rocky outcrops and bald summits. Vegetation is predominantly chaparral with forests of ponderosa pine on high ridges.
White Canyon 5,800 Donnelly Wash Box Canyon stream, White Canyon, sonoran desert and chaparral.
Total 318,797    

Source: BLM 2008, USFS 2007b

* A portion of these wilderness areas are within the boundaries of a National Monument or National Park

A notable wilderness area, Aravaipa Canyon, is located in the Aravaipa Canyon Basin. Administered by the Bureau of Land Management, it was designated in 1984 and includes 19,700 acres along the 10-mile long central gorge of the canyon, which cuts through the northern end of the Galiuro Mountains. The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) Aravaipa Canyon Preserve, consisting of about 7,000 acres, includes lands at both the east and west ends of Aravaipa Canyon as well as lands on the canyon’s south rim (TNC, 2006). In 2007, the 1,250-acre Cobra Ranch near the east end of the canyon was donated to the TNC. Cobra Ranch contains Stowe Gulch, a drainage area estimated to contribute nearly half of the groundwater flowing to the headwaters of Aravaipa Creek (TNC, 2007).

The Nature Conservancy has acquired a number of properties in the planning area for habitat protection, particularly in the Lower San Pedro Basin.  In addition to the Aravaipa Canyon Preserve, TNC preserves include Buehman Canyon Preserve and the San Pedro River Preserve near Winkelman, located in the Lower San Pedro Basin. Other TNC preserves include the Ramsey Canyon Preserve in the Huachuca Mountains in the Upper San Pedro Basin, and the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve in the Cienega Creek Basin. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area is a 49,000 acre preserve established to preserve native fish and grassland located in the Lower San Pedro, Upper San Pedro and Willcox Basins. This area is managed cooperatively by the TNC, BLM and USFS. (TNC, 2006)

Aravaipa Creek Wilderness

Aravaipa Creek in the Aravaipa Canyon

Wilderness Area.

In addition to preserves, the TNC has acquired properties to establish conservation easements that retire irrigated agriculture and reduce groundwater pumping along the San Pedro River. These include the 2,150 acre Three Links Farm, located about 15 miles north of Benson in the Lower San Pedro Basin that contains more than six miles along the river, and a property near the San Pedro River Preserve.  Other TNC-facilitated areas with conservation easements are the 18,500 acre San Rafael Ranch Natural Area in the San Rafael Basin and the 909 acre Sylvester Ranch in Palominas in the Upper San Pedro Basin. (TNC, 2008)

Pima County has acquired two ranches in the Lower San Pedro Basin as part of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan; the A-7 Ranch located in the northeast corner of Pima County and the northwest corner of Cochise County, and the Six-Bar Ranch located ten miles south of San Manuel, west of the San Pedro River.  These two conservation preserves total over 10,000 acres (Pima County, 2006).  The County also owns the Bingham Cienega Preserve in the Lower San Pedro Basin where it is restoring riparian and grassland ecosystems.

In the Lower San Pedro Basin, the Salt River Project and the US Bureau of Reclamation (USBOR) have acquired, or are proposing to acquire, lands for Southwestern Willow Flycatcher habitat along the San Pedro River.  The USBOR has also completed an Environmental Assessment as part of the acquisition of lands for Southwestern Willow Flycatcher habitat in the Safford Basin. (USBOR, 2006)

Kartchner Caverns State Park is located south-west of Benson in the Whetstone Mountains.  A wet cave, it is supported by a limestone aquifer that is recharged by infiltration from ephemeral washes.  There is concern about the impact on this hydrologic system from impending development in the area.

Unique Waters

Six “unique waters”, designated by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) pursuant to A.C.C. R18-11-112, as having exceptional recreational or ecological significance and/or providing habitat for threatened or endangered species, have been identified in the planning area.  These include:

  • Aravaipa Creek from its confluence with Stowe Gulch to the downstream boundary of Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness Area (Aravaipa Canyon and Lower San Pedro basins)
  • Bonita Creek, tributary to the upper Gila River (Bonita Creek and Safford basins)
  • Buehman Canyon Creek from its headwaters to approximately 9.8 miles downstream (Lower San Pedro Basin)
  • Cave Creek and the South Fork of Cave Creek (Chiricahua Mountains), from the headwaters to the Coronado National Forest boundary (Safford Basin)
  • Cienega Creek, from its confluence with Gardner Canyon and Spring Water Canyon to the USGS gaging station in Pima County (Cienega Creek Basin)
  • KP Creek, from its headwaters to its confluence with the Blue River (Morenci Basin)


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