Vast desert grasslands, rolling oak-studded hills, and several "sky island" mountain ranges combine in Las Cienegas National Conservation Area (NCA) to form an unforgettable landscape. This landscape includes the Cienega Creek with its riparian corridor where water flows year-round. This Creek's watershed is home to a great diversity of land and animal life, and it provides a means of flood prevention for the community of Tucson. Appropriately named, "cienegas" is the Spanish term for "marshlands" or "bogs"--a rare resource in this bone dry area.
The Rarest of American Southwest Habitats
Las Cienegas NCA includes five of the rarest habitat types in the American Southwest: cienegas (marshlands), cottonwood-willow riparian forests, sacaton grasslands, mesquite bosques, and semi-desert grasslands. These vegetative communities support a diverse collection of plant and animal species, including 33 that are federally listed as threatened or endangered, identified as species of special concern by the State of Arizona, or designated as "sensitive species" by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Among these are the endangered Gila topminnow, lesser long-nosed bat, southwestern willow flycatcher, the Chiricahua leopard frog, and the Gila club. Large game animals such as the mule, white-tailed deer, pronghorn antelope, and mountain lion are known to reside in the area. Two hundred and thirty kinds of birds have been identified in the area. Two proposed wild and scenic river segments are also among the significant resources within the NCA.
Las Cienegas contains significant cultural resources. Rare prehistoric sites, historic travel routes, mines, and mining towns are all within the borders of the NCA. The Empire Ranch House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is currently being restored with the help of the BLM and the Empire Ranch House Foundation. This Ranch reflects much of the history and evolution of ranching in Arizona since the late 1800s.
Legislation to create this NCA was introduced by Arizona Congressmen Jim Kolbe (R) and Representative Ed Pastor (D), and was supported by grassroots efforts of citizens, ranchers, land users, and representatives from federal, state, and local governments. President Clinton signed a bill creating Las Cienegas National Conservation Area as well as the Acquisition Planning District in southeastern Arizona on December 6, 2000.
Today, hikers, stargazers, artists, photographers, birders, and others seeking respite from burgeoning Tucson enjoy the vast open spaces of the area.
As nearby Tucson inexorably expands, developments increasingly are established right along the borders of the conservation area. These developments bring people, pollution, erosion, and houses perilously close to the Cienega creek watershed and its wildlife. Houses and development--and their night lights--also jeopardize use of the area as a haven for stargazers. Additionally, there is key land adjacent to and inside the NCA's borders that was not included in the NCA when it was designated in 2000. Expanded protections for some of these state, county, and private lands could help protect wildlife corridors and the area's watershed.