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A Hidden Treasure in the Arizona Desert.

No sign marks the turnoff to Peeples Canyon. The dirt road that leads there is nearly hidden from the highway. Thousands of motorists driving along U.S. Route 93 from Phoenix to the hotels and casinos of Las Vegas pass by it every day without even noticing it. And even those travelers who happen to spot it have no clue that this obscure track, cut by gullies and studded with rocks, leads to one of the most remarkable ecological treasures in the Arizona desert.

Five and a half miles down this rough road is a little-used trailhead that marks the beginning of a hiking path. Approaching Peeples Canyon from the north, the foot trail crosses over a harsh landscape of rocks. Farther along, trickles of water appear in the stone crevices. Follow those trickles around a bend and suddenly you're there: Sycamore Spring, a lush, half-acre explosion of green amid the brown cliffs that surround it.

The water and the shade provided by those cliffs creates a unique environment supporting plants and animals that are rare or absent in most of the Southwest. In fact, Sycamore Spring is just the beginning of this unexpected landscape. From the spring, the canyon descends for five miles through a spectacular gorge before its confluence with the Santa Maria River.

Although Peeples Canyon is a surprise to many visitors, its secrets are well-known to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the federal agency responsible for the management of the canyon and its surroundings. In the 1980s, BLM recommended that the canyon be protected as "Wilderness," a designation that would safeguard it from road construction and many other human intrusions. In an environmental impact statement, BLM noted that the canyon is home to ten species of plants not documented elsewhere in the western Arizona desert. It also provides habitat for 15 species of wildlife listed as endangered, threatened or under other special status by the state or U.S. government, including bald eagles and peregrine falcons. Other BLM documents describe the canyon as the "most productive wildlife habitat" in the region.

Following the agency's advice, in 1990, Congress included Peeples Canyon in the newly created Arrastra Mountain Wilderness. In another action, the state of Arizona designated the canyon's stream as a "Unique Water," the degradation of which is prohibited.

In subsequent years, however, BLM apparently lost sight of its commitment to protecting Peeples Canyon. In a series of decisions in the mid-1990s that would undermine the protections of the Wilderness Act, the agency virtually declared war on the canyon. It authorized reconstruction of abandoned roads across the Wilderness, as well as the use of Sycamore Spring as a cattle-watering trough. These decisions, if implemented, would have seriously degraded the very features that led to the protection of the canyon in the first place. That's why conservationists stepped into the fray.

Working with local conservation organizations in Arizona-including its affiliate, the Arizona Wildlife Federation-the National Wildlife Federation argued that the BLM decisions went far beyond what Congress had intended when it created limited exceptions to the Wilderness Act's protections. NWF also argued that the agency's decisions violated the federal Clean Water Act and other laws.

An administrative court in the Interior Department agreed. In 1999, it overturned BLM's decision to allow cattle into Sycamore Spring, holding that the decision failed to respect the creek's protected status as a Unique Water. The state has indicated that it does not intend to change the creek's protective designation.

In the waning days of the Clinton administration, the Interior Department rescinded the other two BLM decisions and sent them back to BLM's Arizona state office for reconsideration. As a result, Peeples Canyon will remain untouched by bulldozers and cattle-for the moment.

Arizona State University law professor Joe Feller has hiked into Peeples Canyon on numerous occasions. To visit the area, the dirt road to the canyon turns west from U.S. Route 93 about 40 miles northwest of Wickenburg, Arizona. The turnoff is about 100 yards north of the intersection of Route 93 with Arizona Route 97 to Bagdad. The road is rough and should not be attempted without a high-clearance, four-wheel- drive vehicle. The foot trail to Sycamore Spring runs south from the jeep road, about 5.5 miles from the highway.
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Title Annotation:possible environmental threat to unique Sycamore Spring and Peeples Canyon area of Arizona
Author:Feller, Joe
Publication:National Wildlife
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1U8AZ
Date:Aug 1, 2001
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