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Ironwood Forest National Monument
A Relatively New Tourist Site
Northwest of Tucson, Arizona and nestled within the Federal public lands west of the suburban town of Marana, Arizona lies the Ironwood Forest National Monument.
Created on June 9, 2000 by a Presidential Proclamation issued by then President Bill Clinton, the Ironwood Forest National Monument was one of seven controversial national monuments created by President Bill Clinton during his two terms of office.
President Clinton’s actions in designating the seven areas as new national monuments, three of which were in Arizona with the remaining four in other western states, were challenged in court in cases that went all the way to the Supreme Court.
However, in 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the cases thereby letting a lower court’s decision to uphold President Clinton’s designation of these areas as national monuments stand.
Difference Between National Parks and National Monuments
Unlike National Parks which are created by Congress following a lengthy debate and approval process, National Monuments are created by a simple executive order or proclamation by the President of the United States.
All National Parks are administered by a single entity, the National Park Service which has been given the mission of managing the parks. The National Park Service receives funding from Congress each year for the purpose of managing and maintaining the National Park system.
National Monuments, on the other hand can be managed by the the Federal Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Park Service, each of which has other responsibilities as well.
Historic Treasures Within Ironwood Forest NM
Ironwood Forest National Monument is administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLS).
The basic purpose of a National Monument, as stated in the 1906 Antiquities Act, is to protect objects of historic and scientific interest that are located on Federal lands.
The 200 plus square miles of land northwest of Tucson, Arizona that are included in the Ironwood Forest National Monument include historic and pre-historic sites of interest including the ruins of the Mission of Santa Ana del Chiquiburitac, the Los Robles Archeological District and the Cocoraque Butte Archeological District.
Interesting and Unique Plant Life
In addition to its archaeological treasures the monument is also intended as a sanctuary for numerous and often unique desert fauna and flora the two most commonly enjoyed by visiting tourists being the Desert Ironwood tree (whose scientific name is olneya tesota) and the majestic Saguaro Cactus.
Both the Desert Ironwood tree and the Saguaro Cactus are abundant in much of the monument. Both are also unique in that they are slow growing and long living with the Saguaro known to live as long as 200 years or more and the Desert Ironwood 100 or more years.
The Desert Ironwood gets its name from the fact that its wood is very hard and dense. Because of its density, when an ironwood tree dies it can take as long as 1,600 years for it to fully decompose.
Both the Desert Ironwood and the Saguaro are unique to the Sonoran Desert and are not found outside this desert which covers an area in northwest Mexico and southwest United States.
Unlike New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument which, is administered by the National Park Service and is a popular tourist attraction, Ironwood Forest National Monument is best described as wilderness area that the Federal Government has zoned as a National Monument for archaeological and scientific purposes.
Tourists are not only welcome but, unlike National Parks and popular National Monuments, there are no fees for visiting, parking, picnicking or camping. There are also no facilities other than a few, not very well maintained, dirt roads.
My Recent Visit to Ironwood Forest National Monument
On a recent visit to Ironwood Forest National Monument the only evidence I saw differentiating the Ironwood Forest National Monument from the surrounding desert were two signs at the entrance with one welcoming us to Ironwood Forest National Monument and a second one nearby informing us that this was an active Federal Law Enforcement area.
As to law enforcement, we didn’t encounter any people or vehicles involved in law enforcement. We did see one car drive past us while we were parked and taking pictures and did pass three parked cars, one pulling a horse trailer, whose occupants were apparently off in the interior hiking or horseback riding. These were the closest encounters we had with other people while in the Ironwood Forest.
Despite the fact that the Ironwood Forest National Monument is only about 35 miles northwest of Downtown Tucson, it is a wild and undeveloped area that attracts few people. It consists of 200 plus square mile of desert with a few so-so dirt roads and a few other paths that can only be traveled on foot, horseback or all terrain vehicle. Even some of the dirt roads are likely to require a vehicle with off the road capabilities.
Given the terrain, a combination of desert and mountains, and lack of good roads it is easy to see why law enforcement within this area would be spotty and difficult. Add to these obstacles a limited budgets for law enforcement and it is easy to understand local news reports of vandalism within the monument and warnings on websites and signs in areas near the park telling visitors to be alert for drug and human smuggling activity in remoter areas of the monument.
While something to be aware of, reports of crime in the National Monument should be kept in perspective. Smugglers sometimes use this area because it is remote and chances of contact with others is minimal. Thus, they are probably going to be on guard to detect outsiders early so they can exit before being seen.
As to vandals, they also tend to operate out of sight so the odds are probably greater of seeing the results of vandalism (which is the destruction, defacing or stealing ancient artifacts, cacti or other flora) than encountering vandals at work.
A Drive Through the Eastern Side of the Monument
Marana Road (which at a point outside Marana changes its name to Marana-Trico Road) is a paved, two lane road that heads west from the Interstate along the southern edge of the Townof Marana. W. Silverbell Rd is also a paved, two lane road until shortly past the point where it enters the Ironwood Forest National Monument at which point it becomes a one and a half lane dirt road.
We were driving my wife’s Nissan Altima which is not an off the road vehicle. For the most part the dirt road portion of W. Silverbell Rd and E. Sasco Rd (on which we exited the Monument) were ok for our car so long as I kept my speed at 10 mph or less. My wife, who had just had the car washed the day before, was also not happy with the layer of dust that covered the car at the end of the trip.
While we did not explore any of the other roads within the Monument, from my research I have the feeling that they should not be traveled upon unless you have a vehicle with off the road capabilities as this is a very primitive area as far as automobile travel is concerned.
I had half expected to find some petroglyphs (there are a number of sites in Southern Arizona with these) and had also hoped to find the site of Mission of Santa Ana del Chiquiburitac and/or the remains of the old nineteenth century mining camp both of which are located within the Monument.
A Great Place to Visit - But It's Not a Destination for Everyone
For those wanting a more rigorous adventure Ironwood Forest National Monument offers great hiking trails as well as being a wonderful place for horseback riding (provided you have your own horse and trailer to transport the horse).
Finally, for those who want to get away and rough it, the Forest is a true wilderness area where one is welcome to backpack into and spend time communing with the surrounding wonders of nature. Just make sure to pack and carry in everything you need as there are no amenities. And then take care to bring everything you take in back out with you so as to leave the area in its natural state for others.
Keep in mind the dictum to leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but pictures.
Mission of Santa Ana del Chiquiburitac
The Mission of Santa Ana del Chiquiburitac was the northern most mission established by the Spanish Jesuit Missionary Fr. Eusebio Francisco Kino (1645? - 1711) who established numerous missions in Northern Mexico and Southwestern United States during the Spanish colonial period.
Unlike, the Mission San Xavier del Bac in Tucson, which was also founded by Fr. Kino and continues to this day to serve the spiritual needs of its parishioners as well as being a major loal tourist attraction and historic site, Mission of Santa Ana del Chiquiburitac has all but vanished.
While Mission of Santa Ana del Chiquiburitac is on the National Register of Historic sites, I suspect that all that exists of it today is the outline of its foundation and excavation work by archaeologists.
The National Registry entry for it on the web indicates that there are no buildings or objects to see and its location is listed as undisclosed in the Tucson area. Because of fears of continuing vandalism, all of the few references that I have found for it have refused to provide its exact location. The same is true of the old mining camp.
However, it would have been nice to have stumbled upon one or both of these sites.
Despite our not encountering any historic sites, the drive was beautiful. While nothing like the dense pine or hardwood forests found in other areas, desert forests are more open with the tallest of trees (ironwoods, saguaro cacti, ocotillo, etc.) rarely reaching more than forty feet in height.
The tall trees themselves are generally not clumped close together, but a proliferation of smaller cacti, bushes and grasses tend to fill in the spaces in between the larger trees leaving very little views of sand. Rising behind this abundant flora are the rugged peaks of the surrounding mountains.
Pinal Air Park in Distance (see map)
Satellite View of Ironwood Forest NM and Surrounding Area
Marana, AZ a northern suburb of Tucson, AZ which is located near the Ironwood Forest NM
Pinal Air Park a former WW II military air base and Vietnam Era CIA air base. Now used by private airlines for maintenance and storage of old aircraft