On the government’s official maps of forests, the symbolic color green dominates.
A week ago, the Tonto National Forest, about 12 miles north of Carefree, contained a tiny triangle of white bordered on two sides by blue. Not anymore.
Welcome to Cartwright Ranch, a plot of Arizona history dating back 120 years — and the newest addition to the public lands of the U.S. Forest Service.
The Forest Service recently finalized a purchase of 28 acres of this private land for about $1.5 million. The landowner kept 29 acres.
“This is going to be held, in perpetuity, for the public’s enjoyment,” said Becky Cross, the forester who helped negotiate the deal.
Enjoyment is just one reason Tonto officials put the Cartwright Ranch atop its wish list of properties to acquire. Another motive is the environment.
One of those blue lines on the map represents Cave Creek, a stream flowing year-round — a rarity for the Sonoran Desert — that is the heart of the area’s thriving ecosystem.
On a recent warm morning, dragonflies flitted about while young fish darted through the water. The ribbon of plant life extended the length of the creek in stark contrast to the saguaros clinging to dry hillsides a short drive away.
“Riparian areas are, biologically, very valuable areas,” Forest Service hydrologist Grant Loomis said. “They say 75 percent of all wildlife species depend on riparian areas partly or wholly for their life cycle.”
The threat of wildfire is another reason for the purchase.
Two years ago, the Cave Creek Complex fire burned almost 250,000 acres. The Cartwright Ranch was surrounded by the blaze, but miraculously escaped harm. The Seven Springs Campground, adjacent to the purchased property, only reopened this August.
Forest officials feared if the land were to be sold to a developer, it wouldn’t be long before more homes in the “wildlandurban interface” would be in need of protection.
Even if conditions were calm, private residences there could create problems.
Ranger Colleen Pelles-Madrid gave an example: The forest is open to off-road vehicles, and there could be conflicts between riders seeking fun and homeowners seeking quiet.
Cartwright Ranch was established in 1887 as a cattle operation, with the water rights claimed from Cave Creek and nearby Seven Springs. At one time, the ranch covered some 65,000 acres.
Currently, the ranch is on its third set of owners. Three years ago, the Newmans bought the property from the Johnsons, who 25 years before had purchased it from the Cartwrights.
“It’s a nice property — a lot of history in a beautiful spot,” Todd Newman said. “It’s kind of an oasis.”
The Newman family was amenable to a sale, as they weren’t using that land. Also, Newman added, it had become hard to tell over the years where the family’s property ended and the Forest Service’s began.
In 2005, the Forest Service began the work needed to buy the land. But, Cross said, the federal system can’t quickly produce money.
So, she began working with The Conservation Fund, a nonprofit organization that helps purchase environmentally sensitive land. Since 1985, 5.8 million acres have been preserved this way.
“We’re able to act very quickly,” said Mike Ford, the fund’s Nevada and Southwest director. “And that was the case for the Cartwright Ranch.”
So quickly, The Conservation Fund had to wait a year for the Forest Service to finally get the money through its budget process. The sale to the government was made official last Tuesday.
Said Cross: “This is a real jewel.”