Email Page  Print Page 

Ironwood Forest National Monument

Saguaro Cactus in front of Ragged Top Mountain at Ironwood National Monument. Chris Tincher, BLM.
Saguaro Cactus in front of Ragged Top Mountain at Ironwood National Monument. Chris Tincher, BLM.
Established: 2000
Location: Between Tucson and Phoenix, Arizona
Size: 129,022

Natural Features and Perspectives

The renowned naturalist Edmund Jaeger once wrote that during his days of traveling the desert with a mule, he knew his mule would be well-fed by morning if he could tie him under an Ironwood tree.

Jaeger and his mule would have appreciated the 129,000 acre Ironwood Forest National Monument. Large stands of Ironwoods still thrive in the Monument; the largest trees grow along the bottom of washes and in the early summer the Desert Ironwood bursts into bloom with fragrant lavender-purple and white flowers. Some Ironwoods live in excess of 800 years, and in their lifetime they support a host of other plants and animals. For example, the old limbs of the tree creates tangles of brush which provide protection and shade for rabbits, kangaroo rats, coyotes, kit foxes and a variety of birds and reptiles. Dense canopy provides shelter for nesting white-winged doves and roosting sites for hawks and owls. The tree provides protection for nursling saguaros against freezing, burrows for tortoises, and protection against sunburn for night blooming cereus. In short, Ironwoods function as oases of fertile and sheltered habitat within a harsh and challenging desert landscape. 

"By keeping ancient ironwoods alive, we maintain the oldest medicine show, native wildlife menagerie and migratory pollinator bed-and-breakfast in town. These hardy old trees provide ideal habitat for everything from night-blooming cacti to tree lizards, desert bighorn and cactus owls. The list of residents living under a 45-foot ironwood reads like the Who's Who of the Sonoran Desert"1

The Monument is special for many reasons besides its unique namesake tree. For example, it includes rugged mountains like the Silver Bells, and the Desert Bighorn Sheep-possibly the last viable population indigenous to the Tucson Basin. In addition, the area is historic and potential habitat for the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl. It's also renowned for its cultural artifacts; see "history," below.


Ironwoods have, long provided a bounty for people as well as animals and plants. Its roots and flowers can be used for medicine, its seeds for leached and ground for food, and its trunks for firewood, utensils, carvings, charcoal and fence posts. Perhaps to capitalize on the bounty, people have traversed or lived in what is today Ironwood National Monument for 5,000 years.

More than 200 sites from the prehistoric Hohokam period (600 BCE to 1450 CE) have been recorded in the area. The archeological artifacts include chipped stone, plain and decorated ceramics and worked shell from the Gulf of California. An unusually large number of petroglyphs have been recorded in the Silverbell Mountains, in addition to a dazzling array of complex pictograph sites. Ruins of an extensive Hohokam village highlight the monument's archeological value. Three areas within the monument are listed on the National Register of Historic Places: the Cocoraque Butte Archeological District (considered a traditional cultural place by the Tohono O'odham and Hopi Indian tribes); the Lost Robles Archeological District; and the Mission of Santa Ana del Chiquiburitac (the last mission constructed in Pimeria Alta).

Threats to the Monument

The Ironwood is also very much an urban monument, with approximately 25,000 people living within 20 minutes of the monument, plus several hundred thousand living less than an hour away in Tucson. Since the monument's designation in 2000, it has essentially been "discovered" by far more people, increasing problems of illegal off-road vehicle use, target shooting, and illegal disposal of waste. The BLM remains shorthanded to enforce the Monument rules that ban ORV travel and to prevent poaching of the valuable Ironwoods-another major problem.


Arizona Wilderness Coalition
Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection
The Sierra Club
Sonoran Institute

1 Gary Paul Nabhan, ed.2000, Desert Ironwood Primer: Biodiversity and Uses Associated with Ancient Legume and Cactus Forests in the Sonoran Desert. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Tucson, AZ. 95pp.

Updated December 2003