Lower Salt River is unappreciated gem - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Lower Salt River is unappreciated gem

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Posted: Saturday, September 19, 2009 4:26 pm | Updated: 1:18 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Jim Ripley: Nothing is more precious in the desert than shade and water. Throw in the views of the Sonoran Desert, the bluff and mountains and you have Coon Bluff. I’ve seen many beautiful places, and this is one of them, I decided.

This column began writing itself early last spring.

There are any number of starting points, but this one begins along the Salt River at a place called Coon Bluff.

“There’s a bird flopping around in the water down by that point,” said Pam, my wife.

I trained my binoculars on the commotion. It was a bald eagle. It was thrashing about so that my wife and I feared it was entangled in fishing line as we had once seen happen to a cormorant that died at the Gilbert Riparian Preserve.

But the eagle was in a different kind of life or death struggle.

“It’s got a fish!” Pam cried out.

I watched as the victorious eagle dragged the fish out of the water and stood for a few seconds to regain its strength. We watched as it pulled its heavy prey another foot or two onto the point before stopping to rest again. The scene repeated itself until the eagle flew with remnants of a fish carcass to a nearby tree.

“Hey, did you see the eagle back there?” an excited couple in a kayak shouted at us minutes later.

Coon Bluff is a magnificent place.

It is one of four parks maintained by the Tonto National Forest along the Lower Salt River and just off the Bush Highway down the road from Mesa. The other parks are Granite Reef, just a couple of miles from where Loop 202 intersects with Power Road in Mesa.

Phon D. Sutton is a couple more miles, and then there’s Butcher Jones, which hugs the east side of Saguaro Lake.

Phon D. Sutton has a grandeur all its own. It’s where two desert rivers — the Salt and the Verde — meet. Go stand on a boulder overlooking the confluence after a winter rain and you’ll feel like you were in the garden at the creation.

Each park has its advantages, but Coon Bluff is my favorite. It’s in part because the mesquite woods and the towering cottonwood trees along the marsh hold so much bird life. The river, the cottonwoods, the view of Red Mountain, and the bluff where I watched a Mormon youth group practice rappelling down a cliff boast their own convergence.

Nothing is more precious in the desert than shade and water. Throw in the views of the Sonoran Desert, the bluff and mountains and you have Coon Bluff. I’ve seen many beautiful places, and this is one of them, I decided.

As I sat there in my camping chair last winter before tubing season, it struck me as odd that there were so few people around. Thoreau had his pond and Ripley had his river — or so it seemed. Do people know about Coon Bluff? I Googled the name and didn’t find much.

Did the city of Mesa realize that this wonder of nature is on its outskirts, waiting to be claimed as one more reason to come to Mesa? A visit to the Mesa Visitors Bureau turned up empty-handed.

Why weren’t schools using this desert and river ecosystem as an outdoors laboratory? Why did southern Arizona get all the national attention as a bird-watching haven and attract all the tourists when vermillion flycatchers, gilded flickers, and Bullock’s orioles are in seasonal abundance along with the shore birds that regularly fish the river?

Arizona Game and Fish will tell you that tourism dollars from bird-watching is significant, but most of it goes to southern Arizona. With places like the Gilbert Riparian Preserve and the lower Salt River, is the East Valley missing out on a tourist opportunity?

Why is there no interpretive and education center, such as at Boyce Thompson? Why are some of the trails overgrown, and trash left lying around for too long? Is there a volunteer organization aimed at preserving and enhancing Coon Bluff or all four of the parks? Outside of Tucson, the Friends of Sabino Canyon work to do just that in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and other key stakeholders.

Where are the friends of the Lower Salt?

In search of answers, I talked with Mesa Mayor Scott Smith; with Sharon Wallace, acting district ranger for the Mesa District of the Tonto National Forest; with Rex Griswold, a former Mesa City Council member who was active in Friends of the Tonto National Forest; and with Bill Puffer, an avid hiker, who is secretary of that group.

I came away with an appreciation of the forest service’s stewardship, limited resources and conflicting missions. I came away with the satisfaction that Smith, too, sees that the city’s shadow falls on a riparian treasure.

But I also came away with new questions. For instance, could pieces of the Tonto near Mesa be traded to developers as had been proposed a decade ago? You’ll hear more from me as I explore the answer to that question and continue to dig into what the Lower Salt could be and why it hasn’t happened.

Jim Ripley is former executive editor of the Tribune. Contact him at jripley@evtrib.com.

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