Sustainability and Sense of Place in the Sonoran Desert/Arizona Uplands

Subregion Outline edit

Introduction: edit

The Arizona Uplands is one of the many subregions that is part of the Sonora Desert. Due to urbanization, this area has been the victim of habitat loss, becoming a conservational issue.  It is mainly well known as “Thorn scrub.” This is because of its diversity between having many well-grown trees, which give its tropical vibe, and the components it has to be considered a desert. This is an overview of some of the most exciting places in this subregions, which will discuss their history(culture), geology(climate), biodiversity, and water and land use. This region is the one that sees the most water out throughout the year but at the same time experiences longer winters with lower degrees. This subdivision finds itself close to some rocky locations where many other plants’ life forms and animals are present. Some of them are unique because of the ability of the region to keep cooler temperatures for longer durations. The primary plants which can be found around this area are legume trees, shrubs, succulents, cacti, palo verde, mesquite, and even saguaro. This area is surrounded by mountains and valleys which elevations differ depending on the place. As for animal sightings, the most common are coyotes, pygmy owl, jackrabbit, burrowing owl, and many other types of snakes or lizards.

A. History/Culture edit

View from the water region of "Bosque Nacional Del Tonto"

1. Bosque Nacional Del Tonto edit

This National Forest is considered to be the largest one in Arizona. It is known because it covers more than 2.9 million acres of land. Tonto National Forest was first officially established in 1905, and the main reason behind this was to help protect watersheds around its reservoirs. Fun fact of the forest 350,000-acre-feet of water as an average is produced each year. Some of the wilderness areas included within the Tonto Wilderness are Four Peaks, Hell’s Gate, Mazatzal, Salome, Salt River Canyon, Sierra Ancha, and Superstition. Along with the Coconino, Tonto National Forest is considered Fossil Creek Wild and Scenic River home. Something that can also be considered interesting is that this national forest is also the home to at least 400 species (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fishes) which also includes the 21 species which are considered to be endangered species.

Originally Tonto National Forest was the home to many Indian groups and was colonized by the Hohokam. Several years after the Hohokam, everyone, including them, decided to leave because of the many droughts, floods, and warfare. Regarding the name, it is based on its core which lies in Tonto Basin. The Tonto Apache presumably settled in Tonto Basin. The term “Tonto” was commonly applied to Indians who lived between the White Mountains and Colorado River. A language that the Hohokam spoke was ancient Tepiman and Zuni In-dian. They build canals to transport their goods. Now the settlements are abandoned as previously mentioned, but some of the descendants, Pima and Tohono O’odham, can be found living in the South.

In reality, the existence of this National Forest is thanks to the creation of the Roosevelt Dam. The dam was initially constructed to help control the Salt River and ensure that the Agricultural cities have enough water supply. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, “In addition to protecting archeological sites, the forest also works with the tribes to ensure that traditional Native American economic and religious activities can continue to be practiced on what are now public lands.” (sect. The Forest Inception and Early Development)[1]

B. Geology/Climate edit

1. Needle's Eye Wilderness edit

Needle’s Eye Wilderness located in Arizona covers 8,760 acres is managed by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and was initially established in 1990. This area has many wonderful features but one of the most important one is the Mescal Mountains. The mountains elevate/rise above the desert with a southwest slope of 2500ft. Another natural feature from this area is the Gila River which in a way is connected to the reason behind the name of the wilderness area. As the “Outdoorsy” stated, “The exposed striped limestone mountain faces create a striking backdrop, while the river winds through steep 1000-foot-deep walled canyons. The canyon is so narrow it gives the region its interesting name, “Needle's Eye” (para. 2).

It is said to contain Precambrian to Paleozoic sedimentary rocks but some of them are host rocks. A small sample of iron-stained limestone was one of the first samples to be found while the second one was on a hematite-stained structure. Another discovery was that a certain region from this area suggest that metal mineralization might be associated with a Tertiary intrusion. This correlates to the numbers of scarcity bases or the number of previous metal occurrences.

This particular wilderness area is a little bit more difficult to have access to because of its surroundings. The area happens to be surrounded by private lands as well as the Apache Nation San Carlos Indian Reservation so in order to have access to this area you would need to obtain permission from landowners to cross their territory.[2][3][4]

View of the Dam from "La Angostura"

2. La Angostura edit

La Angostura is a channel of the River Bavispe located in the heart of Sonora which is also affluent of the River Yaqui. La Angostura was where the first dam on Sonora history was built, its purpose was to direct water for agricultural irrigation and for individual consumption. As one of the first large interventions of humanity with the natural course of the environment it brought many ecological implications.

One of them arose on its construction as La Angostura is a canyon with a distinctive feature as its walls are composed mostly of rhyolite which is a silica rich volcanic rock that freezes relatively fast, that geological condition was making it hard for the workers to structure the main edifice of the dam which led to the construction of tunnels to divert the flow of water and allow for better conditions to continue the construction of the dam. After its construction, a second issue arose, as 45% of the dam’s volume was lost as a result of climate change, the increasing temperatures of an already dry region with low incidence of rain that was being continuously pushed to its limits by humanity.

La Angostura is not only distinguished as a prowess of engineering, but it also is acknowledged by the richness of its soil, and geological composition that points that its formation took place on the Cenozoic Era when a continental margin volcanic eruption took place and granitic magma settled in the surface, over time it became Rhyolite. This mineral even if it is not being directly jeopardized by the presence of water it should be noted that dams often tend to form higher concentrations of sediment and decrease the nutrients found on its walls leading to erosion, which might make it more sensible to seismic activity.[5]

3. Tucson Mountains edit

The Tucson Mountains is an area that has experienced many volcanic episodes that led to its eventual formation, these sediments and fragments of millions of years are not only found on the base of the mountains but also on its superficial level as the many roads surrounding this area are practically destined to find at least one. These geological formations detail the origins of the region and the many encounters it had with volcanic and crustal activity, and maybe even what is to come.

This range of mountains was defined by major eruptions that took place on the Triassic-Jurrasic time (190-200 million years ago), the Laramide period (62-74 million years ago), and the late Tertiary period (Around 20 million years ago). This last incident produced large volumes of rhyolite tuff that formed the Cat Mountain Tuff of the Tucson Mountains. Parallel to the before-mentioned event, the rapid eruption from the volcano made it collapse in itself creating a caldera underneath the mountain range with a distinctive geological feature since as opposed to similar formations this one has unequal subsidence which categorizes it as a trap door caldera. In addition, it gave place to a megabreccia (sedimentary deposits in which very large rock fragments are visible) that is now called the Tucson Mountain Chaos.

Tucson Mountains from the distance.

Something that has to be noted is that this is not the only region in which Rhyolite has been found on the Sonoran Desert as this type of volcanic rock is present in many areas such as "La Angostura" in Sonora. It is important to remark how similar geological and volcanic events that transcurred on a short window of time had drastically different effects on each of those regions as it shows how complex the work of nature is.

This region offers many geologists the opportunity to study the endemic characteristics of regions with trap door calderas beneath the surface. This is an important task as knowing how the mineral distribution impacts the growth of other plants could allow scientists to find alternative ways to revitalize natural areas that were devastated by human impact. People most of the time only see calderas as an imminent threat to safety, however, it is important to see beyond the stigma. Threats often offer unique opportunities to explore aspects of the environment that were only seen as detrimental however it allows us to see ourselves as a part of nature and to reflect on the importance of these geological formations.[6]

C. Biodiversity edit

1. Harquahala Mountain edit

Harquahala Mountains in its beautiful spring season

The Harquahala Mountain is the home of many animals and plants. Interesting before we start the name Harquahala originated from the Yavapi which in their language this means “running water”. Basically, this area is a place which has remained undisturbed by advancement from our own doing such as deforestation or convenience stores put in place for hikers or hunting. Protection has been guaranteed to this area because of the Wilderness Act which has protected the land from becoming an imprint of the human touch.

Some common animals that can be found roaming these mountains are bighorn sheep, mountain lions, and mule deer populations. It is also the home to the desert tortoise which is considered to be an endangered species from the region. It also provides a home to reptiles such as the Gila Monster and venomous snake namely the Albino snake. Hikers might be able to see songbirds flying around as well as raptors which are known for being "birds of prey." Fun fact there is even an act named the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act which basically allows for these animals to roam around freely without being harmed in anyway. There was an idea that was considered back then which was to create a horse trail, but it was concluded that constructing this trail would not be suited. The only type of “harm” permitted insides this area is hunting and fishing but even they have regulations which the state obliges them to follow.

In regard to plants well its environment allows for plants such as chaparral, dessert grasslands, and rare cactus populations to grow. Many flowers grow in this region, specifically, the Desert Poppy, Mojave Aster, and Clover.

According to Harquahala Mountains Wilderness “…remove non-native invasive or noxious plants or animal species” (p. 20). People who protect this wilderness area do take their job seriously because even the smallest bit that seems out of place will be remove in order to have the integrity of the place remain. As you can tell by now this area is consider a good habitat since it protects both plant and animal species and it is thanks to the agency of Bureau and Land Management (BLM). [7]

2. Sahuarita edit

Sahuarita Lake at with its deep blue water color.

This lake was not originally here; it was created. The lake was created around 2000 and was opened for visitors around 2001. It is a 10-acre Lake with a beautiful, radiant blue color because of a highly concentrated dye. The dye happens to be non-toxic, so it does not cause harm to either the people who come into contact with the water or the animals who drink it. This dye is added around two to three times every year in order for the water to keep its color, but its primary purpose is to help control the growth of weed and algae. There are activities people enjoy doing such as: running and walking, boating, and fishing. The main activity is fishing because of the variety of fish the lake offers, such as catfish, bass, bluegill, and sunfish. This activity requires licensing from Tucson Urban Fishing.

Sahuarita has a list of approving plants and the best season to start planting them. There are very few winter plants since most of them grow better in the summer or spring. Some of these plants are Mulga, Mescal Pelon, and Acanthus Mollis. Many types of trees grow in this area as well. The Palo Blanco is one of them as well as the Pencilleaf Acacia.

Since the lake is in the middle of the town, people can bring in their pets, but they must be wearing a leash. Some animals that can be found other than fishes in the area are doves and squabs. They can be seen roaming around in the sky from time-to-time other types of birds can be seen, but the native or most common is the squab and doves.[8][9]

3. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument edit

The Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument like many regions of the Sonoran Desert it has low humidity, low rainfall, and a high ratio of evaporation to precipitation, however, what has distinguished this region from many other areas are the dynamic environmental factors that have allowed for vivid biodiversity to take place, and to be recognized by the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) as a biosphere reserve since 1976, and to declare 95% of its area as wilderness.

What makes this area suitable for such a blooming ecosystem full of diverse species is its proximity to the Gulf of California, the Pacific Ocean, and the Gulf of Mexico, in addition to this the high mountain barriers allow for a positive apportionment and biannual seasonality of rainfall. The first instance in which this occurs is in Winter/Early Spring through the frontal pacific storms, and then in later summer through the violent convectional storms. As a result, many species have an opportunity to adapt to the conditions of this region of the Desert.

Organ Pipe Cactus

Some animals that have abundant populations in these regions are Mountain Lions, Desert Bighorn, Sonoran Pronghorn, Javelinas, and Packrats. Another species with a predominant presence in the Lesser Long-nosed Bats which is indispensable as it is the primary pollinator of the Saguaros and Organ Pipe Cactus which are the distinguishable feature of this area. Along with that, the Lesser Long-nosed Bats are an indicator species that depict how healthy the region is and if an action for its conservation should be taken. This area is also abundant in many plant species such as Night-Blooming Cereus, Desert Caper, Cottonwood Trees, and Pomegranates. Something interesting is that the last two were introduced by humans for agricultural purposes and inadvertently caused a positive effect on the environment, those plants are considered a part of history as they were introduced by the Tohono O'odham on the Quitobaquito settlement, and are considered heritage plants.

This region presents both animals and humans with the opportunity to comprehend one another. Their roles, their strengths, and how can they interact with one another to create a more balanced perception of nature. One way in which this has taken place is by the growing interest of academics and naturalists in the study of the Lesser Long-nosed bats. They analyze their distribution, their polinization patterns, their diet, and many other things to determine the general state of the regional environment.[10]

4. Gila Box Riparian National Conservatory edit

Gila Chub, an endangered species that resides on the Gila Box Riparian National Conservatory.

This 23,000-acre conservation area is the representative image of an oasis in the middle of the desert as this area has four perennial watergates, the Gila River, the San Francisco River, Bonita Creek, and Eagle Creek. This area is often considered a hidden gem of exploration and many recreative activities, however, what people often ignore is the role it plays in the preservation of wildlife.

As seen in many of the images, the Gila Box Riparian National Conservatory has a neverending variety of plant species such as Patchy Mesquite trees, Cottonwoods, and American Sycamores aside from many others, this conservatory is often considered a sandy beach that has around two hundred species of birds migrating to the area throughout the year, some examples are pygmy-owls and eagles often classified as raptors, another animal that often represents this zone is the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep whose population has been growing since the inception of the conservatory in 1990.

This Riparian conservatory was made with three objectives regarding the protection and enhancement of wildlife species: The first one is to monitor populations and habitats especially the routes of migration, quality of water, and fisheries as this is home of the endangered species the Gila Chub. Secondly, to enhance wildlife that had been slowed down by the introduction of human activities, and finally, to re-establish native fish and wildlife. [11] [12]

D. Water/Land Use edit

Morenci Copper Pit Mine

1. Morenci edit

Morenci is home to mainly the family of the mine workers. In order to provide electricity for their houses they use a Power Plant. The water for the city of Morenci comes from two wells which are both 110ft deep. Water is pumped through an air induction system remove as much hydrogen sulfide as possible. Afterwards it is passed through many filters to help remove iron. Lastly, chlorine is added to help disinfect the rest of it. This was how they did it back when the main source was the wells but now also have other sources such as rivers lakes, stream, ponds, etc. They mainly use water from Eagle Creek which is only a few miles away.

Now, the sewer also works differently. It works on a stabilization pond system. It is pumped from the West station and then goes to the stabilization pond system located Northwest. Stabilization ponds are basically "shallow man-made basins comprising a single or several series of anaerobic, facultative or maturation ponds." The whole sewage situation became a problem situation was working but then got complicated as the population grew so the usual plan was not working so they now associated with the Morenci Wastewater Treatment Plant. This basically allows them to recycle the water as Freeport said, “The wastewater treatment plant effluent is discharged to the copper mine’s tailings holding reservoir, which collects and holds the copper mine’s process and runoff water. This water is then processed and reused in the copper mine” (para. 11). Basically the connection between the water treatment and the mines have their own reservoir  which uses water that has already been process to afterwards put in multiple uses for it at the mines.

This region has also partner up with a recycling system. Since there is little waste trash in only picked up once a week. The recycle anything made up of: aluminum, copper, brass, or even batteries. The closest wilderness area to Morenci would be the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation.[13][14][15]

2. Laguna Patos edit

Laguna Los Patos with an amazing background of a Mountain

“The Pluvial Lake Palomas – Samalayuca Dunes System” stated, “The Laguna de Patos, forming one of the smallest playas located in the far southeast extent of the system” (pg 16). Due to the location, if there were a winter storm, it would be moving north from the Gulf of Mexico in order to push warm air away and create a cold front. As for the moon phases, there was a full moon on March 28, and will not be another one until April 26. Interestingly, this was initially called “Laguna Patos” because it is like a resting place for ducks.

Because it is considered part of the Sonoran Desert its soil, this laguna is layered with clay, colors, and caliche. Since it is close to the laguna, the soil is moist around the edges but dry where the moisture does not reach. Because of the laguna being located in Sonora, the planting or growing season was calculated based on their information. Based on that information, it was concluded that the best time for planting seeds is around the end of April for spring.

An alternative name for this region is “Laguna Los Patos,” which is not much different from its original name if you analyze it. This lake is considered to be a class H which stands for hydrographic. Also, it is considered standing water, and one of the reasons this is believed is the poor soil surrounding the area. An interesting region that is close to this laguna is the Cananea.[16][17]

3. Swansea Wilderness edit

The Swansea Wilderness is a protected wilderness area located on the eastern end of the Buckskin Mountains in La Paz county divided by a gorge formed by six miles of the Bill Williams River. The name "Swansea" was taken from a town with the same name located on the south end of an area that was formerly used for mining and smelting of copper.

Some of the topographical features of this land are the eroded volcanic dikes with precipitous cliffs that can be found on the North of this area that connect with the Buckskin Mountains this portion even though it is less distinctive aside from its impressive height that ranges from 670-1900 feet, it plays a major role as the rounded section forms a complex drainage system that leads to the river. The river near those areas forms a riparian community that allows for species such as hedgehogs, and badgers to have a primary source of water.

Bill Williams River

Like in many of the parts of the Sonoran Desert, the Swansea Wilderness was subjected to a mining operation near the region connecting with the Bill Williams River that mostly searched for copper, gold, and silver till the late 1980s. By the 1990's the U.S Bureau of Land Management declared it a wilderness area, and also assessed a study to determine the richness of the land which showed that there was a high potential for manganese, copper, lead, and zinc making it one of the largest areas within Arizona with such potential to not be exploited, this denotes the increasing conscience of the government and the population on the effects it would have on the water and land becoming a statement of what can be achieved when the environment is prioritized.

The existence of an area like the Swansea Wilderness shows the conflicting approaches of humanity regarding the environment. It presents both an opportunity for the people living near the area to explore and to examine what is truly valuable of nature which is not the gold, the copper, or any of the rich ores that reside beneath the surface of the area but the magnificence of the tumultuous mountains and the water that runs by its side. Being able to watch nature and its cycle of transformation is in itself a trophy. However, this region also presents a major threat as the richness of its soil and its resources could awaken humanity's never-ending greed. The state of Swansea Wilderness will represent in the future a statement of our values as a culture it will either show our desire to protect nature or the blinding want for power. [18]

4. Cuatemoc Dam edit

The Cuauhtemoc Dam was built in the last 1940s and has had a lasting impact on the story of Tubutama as it has sustained many of the agricultural areas since it was built. This dam has a storage capacity of 51 million cubic meters of water and throughout the past decades it was filled to around 40% of its maximum capacity, however, this has been subject to change as the area experiences increasing temperatures and scarcity of rainfall. Some of the features that make this region noticeable to the eye of many ecologists are the imminent risk of losing this area to climate change in the following five years, and the pressure it would place on species such as prickly pears, cardonales, chameleons, and Tecolote's to leave the rich soil of this areas to change their distribution and survive. One piece of evidence that points to this event is that as of 2020 the Cuauhtemoc dam was filled to only 29.2% of its capacity in contrast to the approximately 40% around 75 years ago. Something even more alarming is that as of 2021 it is only filled to 5% of its capacity which accurately depicts the drought that is experienced by the state of Sonora this current year.

Furthermore, it would not only impact the species residing near the area but also the primary economic activity of Tubutama. In contrast to the many negative repercussions that have brought the drought, it has also allowed creating conscience on the use of water and the importance it has not only to irrigate but also to unite the many elements of nature that converge in that area.

It must still be noted that even if some conscience has been generated in the current generation residing near the dam it is still a symbol of the anthropogenic era. It represents the devastating rhythm at which humanity lives and how it is imposed over the environment. It makes you wonder how different the world would look if people had actually embraced what it means to be a part of nature instead of an absolute figure that decides on behalf of every other living entity on the planet. [19] [20]

References edit

  1. Tonto national forest - history & culture. (n.d.). Retrieved March 20, 2021, from
  2. Simons, F. S., Theobald, P. K., Tidball, R. R., Erdman, J. A., Harms, T. F., Griscom, A., & Ryan, G. S. (n.d.). Mineral Resources of the Needles Eye Wilderness Study Area, Gila County Arizona. Retrieved April, 2021, from
  3. Ryan, G. S. (1985). Mineral Investigation of the Needle's Eye Wilderness Study Area, Gila County Arizona. Retrieved April, 2021, from
  4. TheArmchairExplorer. (n.d.). Needles eye wilderness. Retrieved April 03, 2021, from
  5. Evans, S. (2006, December). La angustia de La Angostura: consecuencias socioambientales por la construcción de presas en Sonora. Scielo.
  6. DuHamel, J. (2016, August 28). Tucson Mountains Geology – Complex and Controversial. Arizona Daily Independent.,the%20east%20side%20of%20Tucson.
  7. U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management Hassayampa Field Office. (2015, August). Harquahala Mountains Wilderness Management Plan and Environmental Assessment . Harquahala Mountains Wilderness.
  8. Sahuarita Government . (2011, November 7). Approved Plant List.
  9. O'Brien, B. (n.d.). Sahuarita LakeDescription, Pictures, Map & Suggestions. SAHUARITA LAKE - TUCSON FISHING.
  10. National Park Service. (2015, February 24). The GREEN Desert - Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (U.S. National Park Service).
  11. United States Deparment of the Interior. (2004, June 10). Reinitiation of Consultation/Conference on the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area Interdisciplinary Activity Plan, Graham County, Arizona. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
  12. Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area | Oh, Ranger! (2008). OhRanger.
  13. Morenci Water & Electric . Morenci 2019 CCR. (2019).
  14. Pay Online. Vista Recycling. (n.d.).
  15. Cost-Effective wastewater treatment for an Arizona mining town. (n.d.). Retrieved April 30, 2021, from
  16. Old Farmer's Almanac. (n.d.). Planting Calendar for Sonora, CA. Old Farmer's Almanac.
  17. Laguna Los Patos. (2006).
  18. BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT. (n.d.). Swansea Wilderness. U.S Department Of The Interior Bureau Of Land Management. Retrieved April 1, 2021, from
  19. Ayuntamiento de Tubutama. (n.d.). Sonora - Tubutama. Enciclopedia de Los Municipios y Delegaciones. Retrieved April 1, 2021, from
  20. Secretaria de Agricultura Y Desarrollo Rural. (2021, February). Almacenamiento en presas de uso agricola.