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