AZ coalition seeks expansion of wildlife refuge and protection of ancestral lands
Friday, October 6, 2023
An Arizona-based coalition is calling on the Department of the Interior to expand the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in addition to returning the Darby Wells town site to the Tohono O'odham Nation and expanding the Hia-Ced O'odham cemetery.
Lorraine Marquez Eiler, a Hia-Ced O'odham elder, board president and co-founder of the International Sonoran Desert Alliance, explained the proposal would transfer a parcel of land managed by the Bureau of Land Management near Ajo to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a part of the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge. Eiler noted Darby Wells and the cemetery have great meaning to her and Native stakeholders.
"We do need a place where we can have our wakes, our ceremonies," Eiler stressed. "Even though we do, do it at Darby Wells which is on BLM land, it would be much better that we have our own place and of course any land that would come forth whether it's purchased or donated, or in whatever manner comes to us. It would go to the Tohono O'odham Nation."
Eiler has noticed more camping taking place in the area, leading to subsequent degradation which she argued takes away from the essence of the sacred land. She added expanding Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and returning the sites to the Tohono O'odham Nation will bring a conservation focus to the fragile desert environment.
Aaron Cooper, executive director of the International Sonoran Desert Alliance, said those who live around Ajo value having access to the Sonoran Desert, which means ensuring protection for cultural, ecological and recreational assets is paramount. Cooper added his organization has been empowering communities like Ajo he said are interested in "leveraging," those assets for economic gains but also want to care for them responsibly.
He emphasized now is the time for the Biden administration to act to boost recovery efforts of the threatened Sonoran Desert.
"A lot of different things can happen on BLM land, but that is maybe not the best way to approach this particular track of land," Cooper contended. "Given all the fragility and the importance of the natural resources and endangered species, and some of the irreplaceable culture resources, too."
Cooper explained the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is required to protect species from extinction, restore habitats and foster biological diversity. It would also have the power to limit vehicles to established roads and restrict access to certain areas.
The issues would be discussed as part of a public process to transfer Bureau of Land Management lands to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The group is collecting signatures for its petition.
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