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Peeples Canyon

12/12/01 12:00AM By Ruth Page

Our Federal Bureau of Land Management apparently believes that Consistency is the Hobgoblin of Little Minds. There's a canyon in the Arizona desert luckily known to very few, so it's unspoiled. It's a mere half-acre, a boisterous burst of greenery set in a cup at the base of dry brown cliffs. It owes its vigorous life to Sycamore Spring, whose waters seep and trickle from the rocky cliffs, ending in Peeples Canyon.

More than five miles down a dirt road, hidden from the Phoenix-to-Vegas highway, the little 0asis thrives on the seeps of water and cooling shade from the cliffs around it. It helps support a madcap mix of plants and animals rarely or never found elsewhere in the arid Southwest.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) knows the canyon well, and in the l980s designated it as Wilderness to protect it from road-building and other destructive human interference. There is one hiking trail to it. The BLM pointed out that the canyon nurtures 10 plant species not seen elsewhere in the western Arizona desert, along with 15 species of rare wild creatures. The tiny canyon even helps support bald eagles and peregrine falcons. According to National Wildlife magazine, the BLM called it, and I quote, "The most productive wildlife habitat in the region."

As with a prairie pothole, size is no clue to a water source's importance. The State of Arizona designated the Sycamore stream that feeds the Canyon, "unique water," a label that prohibits degrading it in any way.

Great; when you find a unique gem, you protect it. Now fast forward into the 1990's, and the BLM suddenly goes into reverse. In the last decade of the 20th century, BLM made a series of decisions that shatter the canyon's protections. They announced it could be used as a cattle-watering trough and that abandoned roads across its wilderness could be reconstructed. Conservationists could hardly believe it. Must humans have every speck of land available for roads and cattle, right down to one unique half-acre?

Both Arizona and national conservationists in the National Wildlife Federation fought back. They said such changes went 'way beyond what Congress had in mind when it said there could be some limited exceptions to Wilderness Act protections. A court in the Interior Department agreed, and barred cattle from the canyon.

So, near the end of the Clinton Administration, the Interior Department asked BLM's Arizona office to reconsider the plans for road reconstruction. Presumably they're reconsidering. But meanwhile, a political switch from a pro-environment administration to one that puts industry and commerce first, makes the final decision look iffy.

For the moment, Peeples canyon, a delicious little spot of biodiversity nestled within the barren desert cliffs, is protected. But when the Bureau of Land Management can discover and appreciate the great value of a place like Peeples Canyon, and nevertheless open it to the wreckage that would result once it's opened to cattle-watering and intrusive roads, nothing is safe. It's unlikely the current national administration will object. The legal battles fought by committed environmentalists never end. Beyond every victory looms an army of ignorance or selfishness ready to renew the battle.

This is Ruth Page, talking with you about Earth's Gardens, the Environment, and an example of one danger to both.

--Ruth Page is a writer, former editor of a weekly newspaper and a national gardening magazine.
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