The point where southern Arizona's San Pedro River crosses Interstate 10 is not a memorable sight for passers-by zipping merrily along to Los Angeles or El Paso.

At the crossing, marked by an almost ironic sign, the riverbed is little but a thin band of tan dirt and stream cobbles, occasionally graced by a trickle of water that has caused more than one chuckle among travelers used to greener and wetter pastures.

Sorry as it may seem, though, the San Pedro is an important river, important far out of proportion to its size and carrying capacity. The distance from its source in the Sierra Mariquita near the mining town of Cananea, in the Mexican state of Sonora, to its confluence with the Gila River in the heart of what was, before last year's floods, Winkelman, Arizona, is barely 140 miles. Its water flow, too, is significantly less than that of rivers like the Colorado or the Gila, against which the San Pedro seems little more than a small stream.

But the San Pedro is unique, a river flowing in a nearly straight line from south to north, acting as a natural beacon for migrating bird and animal species, ultimately connecting the ecologies of the tropics and the Sierra Madre with those of the far north.

In its pristine form, the river was less a free-flowing watercourse than a series of marshes, or cinagas. The San Pedro has, therefore, always acted as a sort of magnet for birds winging northward from their Latin American wintering spots. Now that other riparian flyways like the Colorado River and the Rio Grande have undergone major ecological changes, the San Pedro is an increasingly critical habitat for birds and other creatures. Biologists estimate that 400 bird species, 83 mammal species and 47 amphibian and reptile species inhabit the San Pedro, which enjoys the distinction of being the longest undammed river in Arizona.

The avian life of the river is so rich, in fact, that Birders Digest recently ranked the area near Cascabel as this nation's premier bird-watching site. And the San Pedro basin encompasses nearly all plant communities and life zones in the greater Southwest, making it an ecological treasure vault of uncommon significance.

People have known the river to be a good thing ever since they arrived in this portion of the Americas. They have thought it so good, they have nearly killed it. Cattle, mining and other activities in its watershed have turned the San Pedro from a near marsh to a deep river channel that is alternately almost dry or flooded. Riparian habitats have disappeared, and with their demise came a Homeric catalogue of near extinctions: A full tenth of the 530-odd species now listed under the Endangered Species Act can be found along the course of the San Pedro.

To many people living along the upper river, however, Latin species names and statistical litanies of wildlife death mean little. Cochise County, encompassing nearly half of the river's flow, is booming, and dollars are pouring in. Car dealerships, fast-food joints and apartment complexes are fast replacing dusty desert. With so much growth, municipal water use and irrigated agriculture now take nearly 22,000 acre-feet (about eight billion gallons) of water from the San Pedro per year--a good portion of the river's total flow, which explains why most people crossing the river on I-10 see nothing but a dry bed most of the time.

Environmental and governmental concerns are pushing to restore the river to some approximation of its former state. Other interests want to further control, develop, even dam the river. Caught in the squabble of contending rights to its use---in Sierra Vista alone, there are 14 private and municipal water companies---the San Pedro awaits final judgment.

In the next few years, Arizonans will decide whether it lives free or dies.
@body:In the American West, most attempts to restore destroyed wildlife habitats have been met with vocal, and often successful, opposition from those who profit by use of the land. And the San Pedro watershed has a long history of human use and abuse.

Near the San Pedro lie two significant woolly mammoth kill sites that date to 12,000 years ago; later, in historical times, several thousand Sobaipuri Indians, distant cousins of the Hohokam, dwelled along the river's length in small settlements such as Gayibanipitea and, for a brief time, in the Spanish presidio named Terrenate, near the present town of Tombstone.

The Spanish introduction in the mid-1600s of several thousand head of cattle began to change the face of the river in small ways. It took the arrival of mining companies two centuries later to cause bigger mutations; the mine smelters required thousands of cords of wood daily, and soon the hills lining the San Pedro were shorn of their oak and mesquite trees.

The absence of ground cover, coupled with the arrival of millions of cattle from southern Texas in the 1880s, turned the San Pedro from cinaga to a channel that was either bone-dry or roiled with floodwater.

According to U.S. Geological Survey documents, the channel of the San Pedro near its confluence with the Gila was about ten feet deep in 1870; 40 years later, it was nearly 80 feet deep, and the few remaining farmers along its banks reported the loss of an astonishing 1,100 acres of topsoil in 1915 alone.

The result of these new arrivals and their business activities was the loss of nearly 85 percent of Arizona's riparian habitats in the space of only half a century. That loss had its impact on wildlife. The list of endangered species inhabiting the San Pedro basin is lengthy: The willow flycatcher, once abundant in the San Pedro corridor, has been reduced to 50 to 100 nesting pairs; only 55 pairs of gray hawks are now known to exist there; and fewer than ten pairs of bald eagles now fly along the watershed.

The cottonwood-willow bosques that once lined the San Pedro are now among the most endangered plant associations in the world, an American Amazonia. (By recent estimates, a healthy cottonwood-willow forest carries roughly the same biomass as an equivalent patch of Amazonian rain forest.)

Abuse of the river and its watershed also explains why Sierra Vista, Cochise County's largest town, now lies atop a visible "cone of depression," an area in which ground subsidence is taking place. Water holds the surface of the desert up; in the absence of water, the ground falls like a sagging balloon, occasionally swallowing cars and houses.

The two agencies most concerned with restoring the San Pedro, the United States Bureau of Land Management and the private-sector Nature Conservancy, have been targeted as the enemy by many whose business activity relies on the watershed.

In terms of mission, the Nature Conservancy is similar to many environmental groups. The Conservancy wants to preserve wildlands and to repair some of the damage that has already been done to partially industrialized places. There is a difference, though. Sierra Clubbers write letters to Congress and stage protests at sawmill gates. When the well-heeled Nature Conservancy sees that a place is in trouble, it buys the land and effectively declares it off-limits to all but a few cash customers. (To see the bird sanctuary at the group's Patagonia Creek or Ramsey Canyon holdings, for instance, you must have an entry permit.) Even the hardest-nosed developer might admire the Conservancy's capitalist instincts--no eminent domain here, no federal strong-arming, just the long green talking, the American way.

The Conservancy's Arizona division has been acquiring ecologically sensitive areas along the Hassayampa River, Patagonia Creek and the San Pedro, where not long ago, it took over the 55,000-acre Muleshoe Ranch near Cascabel. The Conservancy also owns 14,761 acres of stream-side land, and has leased another 80,000 acres from the Bureau of Land Management. To add to these piecemeal holdings, in May 1989, the Conservancy helped the BLM establish the nation's first federal riparian conservation area, taking in a stretch of the San Pedro running from Hereford to St. David.

That year, the Conservancy declared the San Pedro River one of the world's eight "Last Great Places," counting it as an ecological treasure house, one whose importance merited an immediate halt to further destruction.

But that designation--and the media campaign following it--earned the organization few new friends in Benson or in Sierra Vista.

Critics of the Conservancy, including many ranchers and farmers in the San Pedro Valley, believe that the group has a hidden agenda, that it aims to remove private lands from the tax rolls and force other taxpayers to shoulder the increased load, that it acts as something of a front for big government.

Their argument gained currency when, not long ago, the Conservancy bought 1,135 acres on behalf of the BLM and the Arizona Parks Board to secure Kartchner Caverns near Benson as the state's newest park. (Long hidden from public view, the deep, many-chambered caverns promise to draw thousands of tourists annually.)

For one critic, Benson insurance agent and rancher Howard Post, the Nature Conservancy is both an obstacle to progress and a shill for creeping federal control of Arizona's private lands.

"The Nature Conservancy," he notes, "buys up land and then turns around and sells or deeds it to the federal government, cutting into the amount of already limited private land down along this river. You bet we want to see that stopped. We want to see cattle running in the river channel every other year or so, just a few hundred steers, let's say, so that some of that river can be put back into production.

"It's there for our use, not just to sit idle."
Christine Conte, publicist for the Tucson-based branch of the Nature Conservancy, has heard Post's arguments many times, and it's clear that she's tired of countering them.

"To suggest as he does that we're agents for the BLM is simply untrue," she says. "We are totally private and nonprofit, and no government body controls us. We try to work with all interested parties in any acquisition, and we try to hear all sides of the argument. Anyway, most of the lands we buy are vacant; there are no caretakers, custodians or ranchers to tend to them. We're not in the business of displacing anyone or taking productive land out of anyone's hands. We're in the business of saving some of nature."
Still, the Nature Conservancy has been taking a new tack of late. "Initially, we put too much emphasis on owning land," says director of protection Andy Laurenzi. "We didn't put as much as we should have on using private owners as conservators, using public outreach to encourage what we call voluntary private conservation. If we get the ranchers involved, we're sure to accomplish a lot more good."

But the ranchers aren't biting. Instead, more and more of them are talking of a new Sagebrush Rebellion, demanding that the federal government return land to the states and the states' land to individual owners. Groups such as the Wise Use Movement are gaining membership throughout the San Pedro Valley, and places like Benson's Horseshoe Cafe are filled with antienvironmentalist buzz over coffee and hot cakes. The antirestoration efforts have thwarted some Nature Conservancy projects, including the acquisition of Cooks Lake, a 70-acre cinaga near the San Pedro-Gila confluence.

Most of the ranchers, however, reserve their greatest dislike for the Bureau of Land Management, which has few supporters in Cochise County.

Kathy Suagee, a board member of the Sierra Vista-based Natural Resource Conservation District for the San Pedro, a branch of the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, argues the ranchers' case against the BLM.

"We're heavily involved with soil and river preservation, as much as any other group," she says. "But we have to haggle all the time with BLM acquisition policy--they're just two-faced about it." The NRCD haggled so successfully, in fact, that the BLM was recently blocked from adding 43,000 acres of stream-side land to its holdings.

Wynn Bundy, a Benson rancher and bookseller, echoes Suagee. "I'm ambivalent about restoring the river the way the environmentalists want to," Bundy remarks. "The BLM causes us a lot of trouble. They don't listen to what anybody down here has to say. All ranchers are environmentalists unless they're out of their gourds. We all know that we have to protect the land--we know it better than anybody else, because we have to live and work here. But still the BLM doesn't listen to us."

Dave Krueper, wildlife biologist at the BLM's Sierra Vista office, understands some of the ranchers' concerns, believing them to be the natural product of self-interest. "Our role is changing," he says. "Traditionally, we've assisted local economies in many ways of using the land. But when we declared a moratorium on cattle grazing in the riverbed in January of 1988, we caused a lot of consternation in ranching circles.

"Since then, we've gone out of our way to communicate with ranchers, help put up fences, that sort of thing, and get them to understand that the cattle are causing problems. Still, I think what bothers some people is that our land-acquisition process allows us to pay fair market prices for properties near conservation areas. To a lot of ranchers, that discretion smacks of big government--they think we're throwing around wads of cash just to take land off the tax rolls.

"I'll stand by the policy," Krueper continues. "Judging by vegetation densities in studies we've done--the largest study ever done linking avian change with vegetative change--the small area we manage is, overall, a very healthy riparian ecosystem, certainly the healthiest in the Southwest. We'd like to do even more."
Albert Bamman, the wildlife biologist for the BLM's Gila Resource Area, which helps oversee the river near Winkelman, admits that the BLM has plans that may seem too grand to many longtime ranchers in the San Pedro Valley.

"Our intent when we started the whole acquisition process was to manage the entire San Pedro ecosystem," he acknowledges. "We still want to be the umbrella organization for that, but with presidential administrations that come and go, it's hard to coordinate a program that everyone can live with.

"There's a new sheriff in town, and the ranchers are really unhappy with the Clinton administration's plan to increase grazing fees on public land," Bamman continues. "You know who'll take the heat for that.

"We've got a hell of a lot of fences to mend."
@body:In the end, the war over water and property rights, deed transfers and creeping big government may be settled well beyond the San Pedro watershed, in some back room at the Interior Department or even before the United States Supreme Court.

The history behind that war is tangled, but its main outline is this: Indians have long endured a legacy of broken treaties; of 370 treaties signed between the 1780s and 1880s, not a single pact between the federal government and the Indian nations has been preserved in its entirety. The Supreme Court legitimated this legacy in a 1903 ruling that upheld Congress' right to abrogate treaties unilaterally. Congress went on to abrogate away.

In the West, many of those treaties had to do with water, and the overriding principle was a simple one: Whoever got to the water first controlled it. The principle, known as the Wyoming Doctrine, in time gave way to a variant, the Winters Doctrine, which added a wrinkle. It states that Indians on reservations are entitled to all the water they can use.

Over time, however, the Winters Doctrine was rarely enforced, and Indian water continued to nourish Anglo fields, sweep aside the mountains that shielded ore from miners' eyes and otherwise "civilize" the West.

In January 1992, though, the Winters Doctrine returned with a vengeance in the form of the so-called Gila River Adjudication, an umbrella suit involving 65,000 individual claims brought by a united front of Indians--Apaches, Akimel O'odham, Yavapai and Tohono O'odham--which seeks authority over two million acre-feet of water, nearly the whole flow of the Gila system.

An initial portion of the lawsuit seems to have been settled in the Indians' favor; however, the plot thickens from there. Some of the plaintiffs have announced plans to lease the water they hope to control for $1,200 per acre-foot, a not-unreasonable sum for residential use, but prohibitive for the marginal agriculture and ranching Arizonans have long favored. The suit may eventually drive the producers of water-hungry cotton, alfalfa, asparagus, citrus and pecans to wetter ground, may stem the growth of Arizona's cities in the San Pedro and Gila valleys, may require ranchers to thin their herds dramatically, may force a return to less water-intensive ways of life in this dry country.

On the other hand, by setting off a statewide scramble to grab up unclaimed water before the adjudication can proceed further in court, the suit may help drive the last nail into the San Pedro's coffin.

@body:Water seems to be the last of many Cochise County residents' worries. Southeastern Arizona is in the midst of a boom. Forty years ago, Sierra Vista was a dusty crossroads named Fry; now it boasts a population of 35,000, and the number is quickly rising. By 2000, some planners predict, it will rank among Arizona's largest cities. Nearby Fort Huachuca has a variable population of another 22,000 or so, and the Army plans to move several units there from bases facing closure in the next few years.

Bisbee and Tombstone, Naco and Willcox, all beckon newcomers with open arms, aided by a change in state policy. Landowners are no longer required to tell potential buyers that water supplies in the San Pedro Valley are uncertain. The change may well have spurred Benson's recent move to annex the Whetstone Ranch--which, in a few years, is projected to boast a 7,000-home retirement community with three water-intensive golf courses.

The boom is almost certain to further degrade the San Pedro unless consensus among environmental advocates and business interests can be built. And a small group of Cochise County residents, which calls itself the Friends of the San Pedro River, actually has fairly modest aims in terms of river preservation, says its president, Sierra Vista resident Dot Rhodes. The group wants to finish the restoration of the small, dilapidated San Pedro House near the entrance to the riparian conservation area; to upgrade the nearby Murray Springs mammoth kill site along Highway 90 to Bisbee; and to convey the importance of living rivers to residents of nearby communities.

But the prospect of real agreement along the San Pedro is a distant one, at best. As the Nature Conservancy's Andy Laurenzi says, "With a watershed of this size, it's unreasonable to think any group will be able to speak for everyone, or that any common cause can be forged."

In the absence of such agreement, politicians and developers are calling yet again for more dams to be built, including one on the San Pedro upstream of Sierra Vista. "Some people say, 'We've dammed the Salt--how terrible.' I say, 'No, it isn't. Look what we have because of those dams,'" state Representative Stan Barnes (Republican-Mesa) recently proclaimed.

A new dam rising on the San Pedro at Charleston may fuel continued growth. In the end, however, it will also alter the condition of the river, undoing years of work by would-be restorers and bringing the last of Arizona's free rivers into a state of servitude. The choice seems simple: Either have a boom-town economy, with a thriving cattle industry, or take a more considered approach to growth and keep a living river.

Making that choice, however, will be a long and painful process, full of sound and fury, and Arizonans will be feeling repercussions from the battle for years to come.

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Gregory McNamee