Green Ribbons through the Desert
Since June 1988, the Empire and Cienega ranches, along with portions of the adjacent Rose Tree Ranch, have been under the administration of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The 45,000 acres of public land are in southeastern Pima County and northeastern Santa Cruz County. As far as recreation, you name it, you can do itprovided its environmental impact is low: hiking, camping, horseback riding, photography, painting, bird-watching, biking, picnicking, and hunting are a few possibilities.
Please bear in mind that the Resource Conservation Area is not a park. There are no marked trails, campgrounds, restrooms, picnic tables, grills, trash pickups, ramadas, playground equipment, parking lots, or concession stands. The BLM wants to keep the area's pristine natural setting while making it available for use by a responsible and environmentally conscious public.
Tall, lush grass, six feet high in some locations, is the dominant feature of the Empire/Cienega Resource Conservation Area (RCA). Its high desert basin setting is ideally suited by elevation (4,500 feet) and rainfall (15 inches annually) to support some of the best examples of native grasslands in Arizona.
A variety of tree species break up expansive pastures. Giant cottonwoods hug the banks of Cienega Creek. Willows and velvet ash are also plentiful. Oaks and junipers thrive on the hills, and mesquite trees are scattered throughout the RCA. The largest Emory oak in the United States stands sentinel-like in a secluded canyon. This giant tree is 43 feet tall, 20 feet 5 inches in circumference, and has a 68-foot crown spread. It was declared the largest of its species by the American Forestry Association in 1986.
Prior to BLM's acquisition, these rolling grasslands and woodlands faced an uncertain future that almost assuredly included housing and commercial development. Such development would have eliminated the sweeping vistas and substantially harmed the watershed and habitat needed for rare native fish and a rich diversity of other wildlife. Pima and Santa Cruz County supervisors officially requested that BLM become involved in protecting this land. Through BLM's efforts, this area is now under public ownership and is being managed under the principles of multiple use for future generations to use and enjoy.
In a state where desert arroyos, washes, and most streambeds remain bone-dry most of the time, the year-round flow of Cienega Creek makes it a highly valuable resource. The riparian zone nurtured by its crystal water is one of the most significant in southern Arizona.
Headwaters of the creek bubble to the surface three miles east of the historic adobe ranch house. From that point the stream meanders for ten miles before again disappearing underground. Its narrow watercourse is six to eight inches deep. Occasionally it is indented by pools of greater depth. The drainage joins Pantano Wash at the foot of the Rincon Mountains, 20 miles north of the ranch headquarters.
In the nearly pristine setting of the Resource Conservation Area, wildlife thrives. Healthy populations of game and non-game animals are enhanced by mild climate, little habitat alteration, and no paved roads. Species include the following:
Fish Cienega Creek is critical to the survival and reproduction of native fish. Three native fish species are found in the stream: the Gila topminnow, which is endangered; the Gila chub, an endangered candidate; and the longfin dace.
Amphibians and Reptiles Amphibians are limited to the lowland leopard frog, canyon tree frog, and a few species of toads, but reptiles are more numerous. They include the desert box turtle, the Great Plains skink and other common lizards, the Gila monster, Mexican garter snake, Sonoran whipsnake and four species of rattlesnakesthe Mohave, rock, diamondback, and blacktailed.
Birds Over 170 species of birds have been identified on the RCA by members of the Audubon Society and other volunteers. Three species of quail, Gambel's, scaled, and Montezuma (also called Mearn's or Harlequin) inhabit the area, as well as the gray hawk, Baird's sparrow, Sprague's pipit, green kingfisher, yellow-billed cuckoo, and northern beardless tyrannulet. Numerous common species also inhabit the ranches.
Mammals Game species include mule deer, whitetail deer, javelina, pronghorn antelope, mountain lions, and cottontail rabbits. Non-game mammals include badgers, coati mundi, ringtail cats, and 11 species of bats.
Walter L. Vail, rancher and entrepreneur, was the guiding force behind the development of the Empire Ranch and subsidiary properties in four other states. In 1876 Vail and a partner paid E. N. Fish and Simon Silverberg $1,174 for their 160-acre ranch. The deal included a small four-room adobe house, a corral, and 612 head of cattle. By 1905 the Empire Ranch had spread over eastern Pima and Santa Cruz counties for 1,000 square miles.
Vail, who was 24 when he acquired the ranch, left his mark on early Arizona politics and history. He served in the 10th Territorial Legislature at Prescott. Vail introduced the bill that created Apache County in 1879. He also served briefly on the Pima County Board of Supervisors, and was the first president of a statewide livestock association. In this latter role he was instrumental in drafting a livestock quarantine and anti-rustling law.
A man of boundless energy, vision, and keen business acumen, Vail's "empire" spread beyond Arizona's borders. He and his partners owned several large ranches near Los Angeles. They ran cattle on Catalina and Santa Barbara islands as well, and in the Texas Panhandle, Colorado, and Kansas.
Between 1880 and 1885, Vail and other partners profitably operated the Total Wreck silver mine and mill in the northern portion of the ranch. In its heyday, the operation supported a community of 300 people. Vail invested the profits from the mine into the expansion of his cattle business. All that remains of the Total Wreck today are small piles of mine tailings and some building foundations.
Vail shipped livestock by rail between his holdings as dictated by range and market conditions. At one point, Vail refused to pay what he considered an exorbitant increase in rail shipping rates. So he drove his cattle from the Empire Ranch to his Los Angeles ranch. When other ranchers threatened to do likewise, the railroad lowered its rates. During Vail's Empire Ranch expansion in the late 1800's, he acquired adjacent land, some of which later became the Cienega Ranch. Vail died in Los Angeles in 1906. His family continued to successfully operate the ranches.
In 1928, the Vail family sold the Empire Ranch and the adjacent property between the Santa Rita Mountains to the west, the Whetstone Mountains to the east, and the Rincon Mountains to the north. The buyer was Chiricahua Cattle Company (later Chiricahua Ranches Company) headed by Frank S. Boice, his family, and other partners. The company sold a portion of the Empire holdings in 1949 to Jack Greenway, who named his property the Cienega Ranch. Later Mr. and Mrs. Frank Boice and their sons bought out the other partners and operated the Empire Ranch until 1960. At that time it was sold to Gulf American Corporation for a proposed real estate development.
The development never occurred and the Anamax Mining Company bought the Empire Ranch in 1974 and the Cienega Ranch in 1977 for their water rights and minerals potential. Anamax changed its plans for developing the property and put the ranches back on the market.
Later, a ground swell of public support developed to preserve the ranches and their natural resources in their nearly pristine condition. A series of land exchanges in 1988 put the property into public ownership under the administration of the Bureau of Land Management.
Cattle have grazed on what is now the Empire-Cienega RCA for nearly 300 years. Fr. Eusebio Francisco Kino, a Jesuit missionary, explorer, and founder of the livestock industry in the territory that later became Arizona, delivered 150 head of cattle in 1699 to the Rancheria Sonoita, near the headwaters of Cienega Creek. Good range management during the many years the ranch was privately owned kept the range in prime condition. Since livestock husbandry is one of the recognized multiple uses of public land, grazing will continue under a BLM lease.
In addition to the rich historical evidence left by the early Spanish settlers and later by other ranching interests in the Cienega Valley, the heritage of Native Americans in the area dates back at least 5,000 years. Evidence of Archaic (before A.D. 200) settlements is found along some major drainages. Later Hohokam and Sobaipuri peoples occupied the area. The Sobaipuri were probably the group contacted by the first Europeans to visit the Valley. As recently as the 1880's Apache Indian raids on ranches in the area were common, as the Valley was considered part of their territory.
Helping the Environment
Fire Exercise extreme caution with fire at all times due to the dry grasslands. Grassland fires can spread rapidly even after light rain. Contact the Tucson Resource Area (520) 722-4289 for fire conditions.
Guns Federal and Arizona state laws regarding hunting, firearms, and recreational activities apply on the Resource Conservation Area. Target shooting is discouraged for safety of other visitors and ranch employees.
Camping Camping is allowed unless otherwise posted. Long-term camping may not exceed 14 consecutive days, or more than 14 days within 6 consecutive months. No camping is allowed within 1/4 mile of water or stock tanks. Campfires are permitted unless otherwise posted or during times of extreme fire danger. Dead and down wood only may be used for fuel. Commercial or home-use fuelwood cutting is prohibited. Clear the area around your fire down to bare dirt. Do not leave any fire unattended. Put all fires out cold before you leave; don't bury and ignore. Smoke only in your vehicle or in a cleared din area and be careful with matches.
Roads Drive only on clearly established roads and jeep trails and only at speeds reasonable for road and weather conditions. Do not drive in washes or creek beds.
Garbage Please take your trash home with you since the RCA has no trash pickup service. You are encouraged to leave the area as clean or cleaner than you found it. Prospecting and mining are not permitted on the RCA.
Ancestral Traces Leave historic and prehistoric artifacts and sites in place for others to enjoy. Federal laws prohibit disturbing historical or archaeological sites or collecting artifacts without a permit. Violations will result in either criminal or civil action or both.
Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
12661 E. Broadway
Tucson, AZ 85748
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
Empire-Cienega National Conservation Area Travel Q&A
What's your favorite hike? Where's the best campsite? Join the conversation! Ask Your Question