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Historical perspective on cultural and environmental policy concerning the Tonto Basin Range

*Introducing our readers to a historical research piece on the Tonto Basin area which was first published in the Journal of the Southwest in 1991. Written by Adam M. Sowards, it explores the governmental rivalries in managing the Tonto from the mid-1800’s to modern times.  The full article : “Reclamation, Ranching, and Reservation: Environmental, Cultural, and Governmental Rivalries in Transitional Arizona” is provided HERE with permission from the Journal of the Southwest. 

It begins by describing the early days of Tonto Basin when grass reached the stirrups…..

Early white settlers in the Tonto Basin spoke of a “stockman’s paradise.” Grama grass that reached your stirrups. Tonto Creek was timbered “from bluff to bluff,” and “fish over a foot in length could be caught with little trouble.” In those days, “there were no washes at all,” and Black Grama covered the slopes on both sides of the river. It “came up in bunches, approximately five inches at the base, grew to a height of 2 to 2½ feet with a sheaf-like spread of 2 to 2½ feet.” 

At the time stock was first brought in, “There was little brush in the country … and it was possible to drive a wagon nearly anywhere one desired. … Nearly all the north slope of Mt. Ord was a Pine Bunch grass country.”

“It is little wonder they flocked to this stockman’s paradise with its fine grasses, well-watered ranges and ideal climate.”

So wrote Fred W. Croxen, senior forest ranger in the 1920s. He was describing the Tonto Basin of the late 1800s, according to old-timers who had seen it with their own eyes. Croxen lamented, “Stories told by these old men while I have been with them, sound like fairy tales, for everything differed so much in those days from what we see of the ragged end of it all at the present time.”

“The ragged end of it all.” Croxen wrote this in 1926. By then, in the words of Florance Packard, the Tonto Basin was already “worn out and gone.”

Beginning with Fred Croxen, a line of intelligent and dedicated forest supervisors attempted to return the Tonto Forest back to its original paradise-like state – or as much as possible. They advocated putting the long-term recovery of the forest ahead of short-term profits. They understood the economic realities of the stock industry, but they also – as forest supervisor F. Lee Kirby said – believed “Nature does not compromise.”

During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps built widespread erosion control projects in the forest that helped to an extent. And in the 1960s, the Forest Service learned how to return chaparral-covered areas to grass – but their method required fire and defoliants, and proved impossible to sustain against the complaints of environmentalists and Valley residents who only saw the smoke.

Today, recreation is more and more dominating the economics of the Tonto Forest, and a new concept of restoration has emerged. The ideal of returning the forest to its previous pristine state has become irrelevant. Now the challenge is to balance the rivalry between urban/recreational interests and the ranchers who have worked and lived in the forest for generations.

This fascinating, sometimes heartbreaking story is told in detail in an article by Adam Soward published in the Western Historical Quarterly from the Summer 2000 issue. The article’s 27 pages tell the stories of the distinguished forest rangers Fred Croxen, D. A. Shoemaker, C. K. Cooperrider and F. Lee Kirby, and goes on to explain the natural and necessary role of fire in the forest.

A follow up to this research was published in 2000 in the Western Historical Quarterly titled: Administrative Trials, Environmental Consequences, and the Use of History in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest, 1926-1996. 


About Patricia Sanders

Patricia Sanders lived in Globe from 2004 to 2008 and at Reevis Mountain School, in the Tonto National Forest, from 2008 to 2014. She has been a writer and editor for GMT since 2015. She currently lives on Santa Maria island in the Azores.

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