Most people know Madera Canyon, but the Santa Rita Experimental Range at the northwestern edge of the Santa Rita Mountains is far less recognized.
The history of the 80-square-mile research area east of Green Valley is rooted in the modern conservation movement and is responsible for some of the most comprehensive and continuous ecological data sets in the world.
Managed through a longtime relationship with the University of Arizona and the Coronado National Forest Service, the experimental range and its headquarters celebrated another historic moment on Tuesday — the signing of a 60-year lease agreement with the UA.
Brett Blum, director of the UA’s Southern Arizona Experiment Station, said the lease is a reaffirmation of the 120-year-old relationship with the UA and Forest Service.
“It’s a 60-year term length, which is different than the special-use permit we operated on before, which was from a 10- to 15-year lease with the Coronado National Forest,” he said. “The foundation of the range dates back to some of the major players of the modern conservation movement, and almost nobody has heard of us.”
With the lease, the opportunities for deeper investment from the UA and other stakeholders grows, and so does the chance to grow it as a community asset.
“At a point 120 years later, public commitment and community engagement is the most critical piece to maintain operations for the next 60 years,” he said. “This lease lets us better engage and this is an opportunity to better our relationships with the community, across the region and the world.”
Arizona saw huge growth in the cattle industry during the 1800s.
There was an open grazing policy and a three-year drought around 1890 that killed off 50 to 75% of the cattle in southern Arizona. Open grazing had decimated range land.
Mitch McClaran, SRER director for Research and director of the Arizona Experiment Station, said his predecessor, Robert Forbes, would come up with the foundation of the SRER.
“At the turn of the 19th, 20th century, livestock grazing and its impact during the drought, particularly with open access rangelands was phenomenal, in a bad way,” he said. “Robert Forbes had a conscience about that and asked how we do we understand and manage public land grazing when there’s no control on access. We call that a tragedy of the commons, because there was no control on open access.”
Forbes reached out to the father of the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, with the idea to preserve an area and learn how the environment could be restored without livestock.
They pitched the idea to new President Theodore Roosevelt, and one of his early proclamations was the establishment of the SRER here and the San Isabel Forest Preserve in Colorado in 1902.
They quickly installed fencing, one of the first instances of barriers being used on public lands to protect and restore the land.
Cattle were removed from the range for 12 years so researchers could learn how the land could recover after livestock were gone.
In 1921, the Forest Service drafted a cooperative agreement with the UA to conduct grazing experiments at the range and to build a new headquarters, constructed in the mid-30s.
In 1988, the College of Agricultural and Lab Sciences signed the first 20-year lease with the Forest Service to assume responsibility for its management.
McClaran said 2009 was also an important year because they received funding to renovate the Florida Station into the meeting room with wi-fi and the upgrades it has today.
He said they began to digitize the data collected there in 1995, and the collection includes repeat photography, vegetation measurements, livestock grazing capacity and more. It is all available for public use.
The SRER works with ranchers and cattle growers to maintain its natural resources. That partnership helped to develop sustainable range management scicence in arid ecosystems.
Along with having a wealth of data publicly available and collected at the SRER, it’s a place where youths and community organizations can experience nature in a variety of ways.
Blum said sometimes youth groups have structured activities at the Florida Station and sometimes it's just a chance to enjoy the outdoors.
“We are just a platform and it could be anywhere from just having this as a backdrop where kids get to explore, make discoveries, to being hyper-structured and focused,” he said. “We have done a lot of range restoration workshops, wildlife tracking…it really varies.”
The range itself is an area open to recreation, while the Florida Station is available on reservation basis.
“To visit the Florida Station, it’s reservation-only because it's to help facilitate teaching, education, research and outreach principals,” he said. “As long as an organization fits within those parameters, we are happy to have them for day trips or to accommodate some overnights. We are open to a wide platform of uses.”
Their facilities include bunkhouses, meeting rooms and lab space for research.
Adam Milnor, Forest Service recreation, heritage and lands staff officer, said a 60-year lease is unusual in the land they manage.
“With the National Historic Preservation Act, they realized that often historic buildings need investment and care, and there might be a need to lengthen out the term of an arrangement,” he said. “There’s a special section in there where federal agencies who own historic properties have the ability to lease them to organizations like universities for up to 100 years. What we established is 60 years based on precedence from similar projects.”
It is the only lease of its kind in Coronado Forest and only one of a handful in the Forest Service system.
His main hope with this long term commitment is that more people will become aware of the SRER.
“This lease means the Santa Rita Range and Florida Station and this place will remain a fascinating and beautiful part of the community,” he said. “We want this on people's radars that this might be a place I can inspire the next conservationist. We want people more aware of the value here.”
Blum hopes more can benefit from the space.
“I would say this is a continuation of 120 years of work and it’s a privilege to look forward to the next 60 years so it can grow as a community asset,” he said. “It really is the best kept secret and it should not be, because there’s more ecological research here than anywhere in the world.”