In the Wilderness

A visit to the Tumacacori Highlands reveals why this land deserves the federal protection it may finally receive

The summer rainy season has been good to the Tumacacori Highlands. The jutting-rock peaks and their ocotillo slopes, the breeze-blown grasslands and the trickling, mossy canyons have all turned a uniform deep green, taking away your breath every time you turn around.

In early August, Rep. Raul Grijalva introduced House Bill 3287, legislation that seeks to put 83,415 acres of this area west of Tubac and north of Nogales under the toughest land-conservation umbrella Congress has: federal wilderness designation. It seems anticlimactic, and not just because when you are actually in the wilderness, the last thing on your mind is legislation.

It has been nearly three years since Grijalva first announced, during a press conference in the shadow of Tumacacori Peak, that he would do what he did last month. A small group of protesters, some of them on horseback dolled up like real cowboys, showed up to that speech, holding placards that sought to cancel out the Save the Jaguars! signs of the supporting cast.

The intervening years featured scores of meetings, discussions and presentations, in Green Valley, Tubac and Nogales, moderated by clean-cut, professional environmentalists who had an answer for every question and concern, and who spent a good deal of time talking about the economic benefits of wilderness and wildlife conservation. In the San Pedro Valley alone, the University of Arizona found, bird watchers are known to spend $10-$16 million a year.

The slick, smart campaign reached a kind of zenith last year when the Tucson-based Sky Island Alliance, the primary nonprofit mover on the Tumacacori Wilderness issue, became a member of the Tubac Chamber of Commerce, a move that would have, just a few decades ago, upset the natural order of the West so much that the range would have become the basin, and vice versa.

In the beginning, area ranchers, hard-rock weekend miners and some other rural West mainstays protested the Tumacacori wilderness idea vigorously. As the Federal Wilderness Act is now--thanks to a 1990 House Report--unambiguous about maintaining grazing rights in Wilderness areas, protests from the few ranchers holding leases here aren't likely to derail the whole effort.

But there are cattle everywhere out here, many of them congregating, on this day, along Ruby Road, the main artery leading into and out of the proposed wilderness area, and one that will remain accessible, along with some 20 other access roads, if the legislation goes forward. Small-scale mining on claims made prior to the designation will also be allowed, as will hunting, hiking and horseback riding.

Others argued that the area, plagued by illegal immigration and drug-smuggling, would be lost forever if the U.S. Border Patrol weren't allowed in. But language in the bill itself, along with a memorandum of understanding among the various agencies involved signed in 2006, gives the Border Patrol virtually unlimited access to wilderness areas. The MOU says that the Border Patrol has the authority to "access lands, including authority to conduct off-road pursuit of suspected cross-border violators at any time including in areas designated or recommended as wilderness ... based on their professional judgment."

There is quite a bit of smuggling activity in this area. A few years ago, I was hiking to the border through Sycamore Canyon (some of it on the southern edge of the proposed wilderness, and part of it already within the Pajarita Wilderness, which the new bill also proposes to expand by more than 13,000 acres), and I was overwhelmed by the amount of trash left behind by smugglers and migrants in this relatively out-of-the-way canyon--the most conspicuous left-behind items being stacks of burlap sacks once used to heft bales of weed.

But Sycamore Canyon will remain inaccessible to vehicles whether the bill passes or not; therefore the legislation wouldn't make it any more difficult than it already is to patrol here.

Indeed, it seems that most of the opposition to the bill was quelled long before the measure was introduced--and it was introduced into a very friendly legislative atmosphere. When advocates first started this effort, President Bush and his ilk were still somewhat popular, and the Republicans ruled both houses. At the bill's introduction, the Democrats had taken over, and Grijalva is chairman of the very subcommittee the bill will visit first.

One of the few things you can't do in a wilderness area is haul ass on your ATV over ad-hoc roads and suspect trails. This, a favorite pastime of residents all over the West, is a difficult activity to control, and is for many wilderness advocates the biggest threat to public lands these days. Bumping along Ruby Road in my ancient SUV, closing in on the trailhead to Sycamore Canyon, where the borderland jaguar is known to stalk, I was passed on the left by two souped-up, nonlicensed ATVs, high-whining and rock-kicking as if my rig were just a hologram. Both riders had smartly tied coolers to a rack behind them for their beverages.

I walked toward the canyon after parking at the trailhead. The creek was full and giggling; a riot of little orange butterflies followed me. I sat down on the edge of the canyon on a grassy rise. Off from somewhere far in the distance, but still close enough, came the whining of the ATVs. It's jarring and seemed inescapable.

Which is really the point of the wilderness designation at its most primitive--to set aside places for escape. And don't we need it? Here in this world, topsy turvy as it is, perhaps it's a simple necessity to once in a while visit some timeless landscape, where nothing alive gives a damn about anything but staying that way.