Pruning the Parks: Papago Saguaro National Monument (1914-1930)

Land once part of Papago Saguaro National Monument is now municipal parkland that contains many developed leisure/recreational facilities, including higher-order ones like the Phoenix Zoo. Photo by Spike Wilbury via Wikipedia.

Proclaimed on January 31, 1914, Arizona’s Papago Saguaro National Monument became the first national monument to be abolished when it was transferred out of the National Park System 16 years later. Trashing a national treasure does have consequences

In the Phoenix metro area there is a large tract of rolling hills and red sandstone buttes that rise as much as 1,700 feet above the nearby desert terrain. This land is scenic, geologically significant, archeologically interesting, and recreationally useful. Much to the detriment of its various qualities, however, it’s also next to, in the path of, or astride a lot of development.

The geology of this hilly desert place is more than routinely interesting. Although the landscape is abundantly praised for its desert flora (especially yucca palm and various cacti, but few remaining saguaros), its feature attraction is an eroded rock formation known as Hole-in-the-Rock.

The prehistoric Hohokam people, who used clever irrigation systems to farm the Salt and Gila River valleys from about 300 b.c. to the early 1400s, apparently used naturally eroded perforations (tafoni) in the rock overhang to keep track of sunbeams and monitor the annual solar cycle. This ancient culture also left a good bit of ”rock art” (petroglyphs and pictographs) of considerable interest to archeologists and ethnologists (who have yet to determine their precise meaning).

Early settlers considered this patch of desert to be pretty much worthless, so in 1879 the Federal government met little resistance when the tract was designated a reservation for the local Maricopa and Pima tribes (allied since about the 1760s). Few whites held these tribes in high regard. For example, E. Conklin, in his Picturesque Arizona (subtitled: being the result of travels and observations in Arizona during the fall and winter of 1877) wrote that

“The morals of these Indians are bad. The missionary labors for seven years have been, apparently, absolutely lost. Not one convert is reported to have been made, and licentiousness is becoming more and more prevalent.”

The reservation was an impermanent thing. On January 31, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Papago Saguaro National Monument, citing a nationally significant collection of biological, geological, archeological, and scenic-recreational values.

Then, things then went very bad for Papago Saguaro. Chronic funding inadequacies insured the neglect of even basic preservation and management tasks. Cattle roamed through the unfenced park and grazed where they ought not to. Vandals pretty much had the run of the place, and the graffiti and advertisements they painted on the rocks stayed there. Homeowners and poachers brazenly stole the park’s namesake saguaros, which were in demand for landscaping. Various and sundry other abuses were heaped on the place. State and local officials even wanted to build a canal and fish hatchery on the site. In sum, Papago Saguaro did not get the kind of respect and stewardship that a national park should have.

The park’s deterioration did not go unnoticed or unchallenged. Complaints eventually became strident enough to garner serious attention, and after several years of letters, editorials, petitions, and various meetings, Arizona officials came to the conclusion that the public interest would be better served if the property were a state park instead of a national park. The Federal government concurred, and on April 7, 1930, Congress transferred Papago Saguaro to the state of Arizona.

Postscript: The land-use constraints and preservation standards applied to state and municipal parklands are generally much less stringent than those applying to national parks. Consequently, it’s not surprising that the land formerly designated as a national park has been substantially altered by development addressing a variety of public needs. A canal was installed for a sport fish hatchery, and the canal easement also allowed for the construction of massive power lines. Various parts of former Papago Saguaro were conveyed or sold to the Arizona National Guard (originally for a rifle range), the city of Tempe (in 1935), the Salt River Project (in 1955), and the city of Phoenix (in 1959). The recreational-use remnant -- now called Papago Park in its 1,200-acre Phoenix extent and Tempe Papago Park in its 296-acre Tempe extent – has a wide range of leisure/recreational facilities (the Phoenix Zoo, a desert botanical garden, a golf course, baseball fields, etc.) and the complex is surrounded by development associated with the cities of Phoenix, Tempe, and Scottsdale.

Traveler trivia, no extra charge: Fans of the popular TV series The Amazing Race may recall that the finish line for the fourth season was in Papago Park.


I have used and enjoyed Papago Park for 40 years and never realized it was once part of the National Park Service. As the article mentions, it now is home to the Phoenix Zoo and the Botanical Gardens, both excellent attractions and most definitely worth an Arizona visitor's time. But if it is saguaro cactus that you are looking for, head southeast to the Saguaro National is one of the most unique and beautiful forests in the country, and only a short drive from the Phoenix area.

Glad you highlighted Papago Saguaro, which was designated as a sister park to Saguaro National Monument near Tucson (which later became Saguaro National Park). It's a clear case of how being named a National Monument does not necessarily engender protection - it's up to the public to help make sure the place is ensured protection. I think you also missed a key political aspect of this tale, which was that while the state took over the Monument, it was for the unspoken purpose of fulfilling some of these other demands, such as the fish hatchery, SRP offices and utility corridors, and so forth. It just took the competing forces a while to divy out the goods. There's an interesting out of print book out there called Papago Park: A History of Hole-In-The-Rock from 1848 to 1995 (by Jason Gart, Pueblo Grande Museum) which charts the interesting history of the area, from its National Monument status to the Ku Klux Klan initiations to its role as a POW camp.

Oh, and I'd also throw out Sonoran Desert National Monument (especially the "Area A" portion) and Ironwood Forest National Monument (both of these are run by the BLM, not the Park Service, and are part of the National Landscape Conservation System) as additionally beautiful saguaro forests - and both of these places are much closer to Phoenix than Saguaro National Park.

What?! You mean to say that I only missed one of the key political aspects of this tale? I think that's a new personal best. Wait 'til I tell Kurt. I'd like to read that out-of-print book you mentioned, since I've always been interested in Papago Park's post-1930 history. Thanks for helping to flesh out the story. Papago park is certainly an interesting place.

I just visited Papago Park for the first time last weekend and had no idea it was formerly part of the national Park system. Hole in the Rock is certainly a highlight but I do wish the area was less commercialized. Thank you for all the interesting info. I will certainly have to link to it when I write up my blog post!

Well, Sharlene, there's a long list of people who'd like to see the area less commercialized, but de-development is not an option. We'll just have to consider the Papago Saguaro story a cautionary tale.