In 1989, Erik Barnes bought a derelict ranch off U.S. Route 93 somewhere north of Wickenburg and south of the middle of nowhere. He'd made his fortune as a fisherman in Alaska, and he wanted to spend his winter months playing cowboy.
The ranch was about 1,000 acres of private land near the highway and another 40 acres down a scenic little canyon that was surrounded by federal Bureau of Land Management acreage. Barnes also acquired grazing rights to the 40,000 or so acres of public lands that were part of the historic Santa Maria Ranch.
The roads down to the canyon and to the water improvements on the BLM lands hadn't been maintained in decades, and they'd nearly gone back to desert.
Within months of Barnes' closing the deed on the ranch in 1990, the surrounding BLM lands were incorporated into the newly designated Arrastra Mountain Wilderness Area. Barnes applied to the BLM to reopen the access roads to his inholding and to the water on his leased lands.
Ten years later, he's still waiting for a final decision.
Barnes says he wants to repair the roads. An environmental coalition led by The Wilderness Society and an Arizona State University law professor says he'll have to rebuild them. At issue are private property rights versus what kind of development is appropriate to wilderness areas. Both sides demand that the BLM follow the law, and both sides have a point.
But the debate takes place in a legal system as slow and suffocating as quicksand. And it comes at a time when Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt is trying to change the BLM's reputation as a clearinghouse for cattle into one as a keeper of wilderness areas and national monuments.
Whether or not the roads should be bulldozed, Barnes deserves an answer. And even a lawyer for the environmentalists, ASU's Joseph Feller, says, "Erik has reason to be ticked off now."
Instead, the case rolls around the Interior Department like a marble in a suitcase.
Environmentalists and local BLM officials alike refer to Peeples Canyon as "the crown jewel" of the Arrastra Mountain Wilderness, a desert oasis, lush with cottonwood, willow, walnut and sycamore trees. Arizona Highways magazine has written of its riparian beauty.
Peeples Canyon Creek starts upstream at Sycamore Creek, then, as intermittent desert streams do, it drops underground and reemerges two miles down the canyon at South Peeples Spring. It only runs aboveground from top to bottom after storms.
The Santa Maria Ranch existed long before the wilderness area, long before the feds cobbled the land together out of the usual Arizona checkerboard of state and private land. But the water developments and the roads to them had apparently not been used for decades before Barnes closed his deal on the ranch in April 1990.
"He bought a piece of property where there was no reasonable motor vehicle access," says Feller. "A road does not equal a right of way."
And when Barnes bought the ranch, there was every reason to expect that the wilderness designation would go through. So tough luck, says Feller.
"I think their environmental concerns are imaginary," Barnes counters. "There's not an animal -- a bobcat or mountain lion or a lizard or a snake -- that won't cross a [graded] road as easily as a rough road."
Feller thinks the road will require a lot of grading and bulldozing.
"And so what?" Barnes snaps. "You can't see the road unless you're going in there with that specifically in mind."
Barnes owns the water rights on the ranch, and he and the environmentalists know that you can't have a ranch without water.
"There's nothing you can do but lose money if you're not allowed to use your own water," Barnes says. "Water's the key to how many cattle you're allowed to run. Anybody'd be stupid to go out and spend two to three hundred thousand on the cows."
Barnes almost had his way with the BLM in 1996, when the agency's field office in Kingman issued three decisions regarding the Santa Maria Ranch. The agency allowed Barnes to fix up about a mile and a half of road so he could get a pickup truck onto the inholding and rebuild an old pump to water cattle. He also was allowed to drive in occasionally to maintain the property and rebuild roads to other water developments. Furthermore, he would be allowed to water cattle in Sycamore Spring, the pristine headwaters of Peeples Canyon.
In short order, an environmentalist coalition comprised of the National Wildlife Federation, the Wilderness Society, the Yuma Audubon Society and the Palo Verde chapter of the Sierra Club appealed the decision to the Interior Board of Land Appeals in Washington, D.C., the last legal step short of suing in federal court.
Barnes waited. The environmentalists waited. For three years.
Finally, last October and November, the IBLA returned its decisions. Barnes could build his roads, but he could not put cattle in Sycamore Spring because it had been designated a "unique water" by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, and under the federal Clean Water Act, all such state designations had to be respected by federal agencies.
That could have been the end of the story, but it wasn't.
Joe Feller dashed off a letter to Henri Bisson, an assistant director of the BLM, protesting the appeal board's decisions allowing roads. In April, he followed with a letter to BLM acting director Tom Fry signed by representatives of more than 100 environmental organizations. Barnes was stopped from moving ahead with construction.
"Finally somebody started paying attention and saying, "What the hell are we doing here?' Which is something the state office never did," Feller says.
Barnes appealed the initial decisions, too, saying they didn't allow him as much access to his property as he wanted. Then when the environmentalists convinced BLM to hold off, he filed a formal legal request that the agency let him proceed. BLM has until mid-June to respond.
On May 25, environmentalists filed suit in federal court seeking a permanent injunction against the roads.
And the state BLM office recently sent a letter to DEQ requesting that the unique waters designation be lifted from Sycamore Spring. The designation had been intended for the stretch downstream where the water comes back out of the ground at South Peeples Spring, the agency contended.
With the designation lifted, Barnes could reapply to use the spring as a watering hole. The BLM letter touched off another letter from the environmentalists.
Barnes is agitated.
He's thinking of expressing his resistance by building an executive retreat on his inholding to rent to visiting groups, and that would require more vehicle access than the earlier BLM decisions would allow.
"I don't like being trod upon," he says. "It makes me more resistant."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.