Soaring sandstone cliffs in northern Arizona, land along the San Pedro River and saguaro- and ironwood-studded expanses gained additional protection Monday under legislation signed by President Barack Obama.
So did a remote expanse of buttes and canyons in the Arizona Strip, recently restored Fossil Creek near Payson and the Arizona Trail, which runs from Mexico to Utah.
The areas are among more than 2 million acres of Arizona now safe from mining, drilling and development, said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., who was on hand as Obama signed the bill.
“Essentially this is the first bill in 35 to 40 years that actually begins to set aside some of the land that needs to be set aside and protected,” Grijalva said in a telephone interview.
Areas of Arizona covered by the Omnibus Public Land Management Act include the Vermillion Cliffs, Grand Canyon-Parashant, Agua Fria, Sonoran Desert and Ironwood Forest national monuments that President Bill Clinton created by executive orders.
The legislation is a landmark in wilderness protection because the national monument designations could be undone by another presidential order, said Carrie Templin, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management’s Arizona state office.
“Because it has been enacted by Congress and signed by the President, it would take an act of Congress to change it,” she said.
The act also covers three national conservation areas, including much of the San Pedro River between the border and St. David, as well as a national historic trail marking a Spanish explorer’s route through the state, 47 wilderness areas and two wilderness study areas.
It groups all of the areas, including the national monuments, into a National Landscape Conservation System.
Matt Clark, the southwest representative for the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife, said the designations bring prestige to the lands and could pave the way for additional federal funding.
“In this new administration, it makes a recognition that wilderness is a part of our American heritage and it is a diminishing resource that we must protect to pass on to future generations,” he said.
The act also designates as a national scenic trail the Arizona Trail, a nearly 800-mile hiking, biking and equestrian route that connects a series of paths.
Dave Hicks, executive director of the Arizona Trail Association, which since the mid-1980s has been working to connect the paths, said the designation will hopefully bring awareness to and help complete the project that has 40 miles left to go.
“We’d love to present a finished Arizona Trail to the folks of Arizona at the centennial in February of 2012,” he said.
Fossil Creek, which was restored in 2005 after having its flow diverted into a flume for nearly a century, was designated a Wild and Scenic River, which will preserve its free flow.
Sandy Bahr, spokeswoman for the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, said the protection is another step toward the renewal of the site northwest of Payson.
“Our children and our children’s children can enjoy Fossil Creek,” she said.
But there’s still work to be done, said Grijalva, who has since January introduced bills to expand the boundaries of Saguaro National Park around Tucson and preserve the cultural and natural resources in the Santa Cruz Valley, among other areas.
“We’ve broken the ice, and now we’re beginning to move on to the next great plateau,” he said. “We’re going to start putting together the next big bill beginning now.”