By Marion Vendituoli
It came as quite a surprise to hunters, birders, hikers and campers to find that vehicular public access to 34,000 acres at the northern end of the San Rafael Valley and the Red Rock Canyon area has been blocked due to private landowners shutting off portions of their property.
Motorized access into Meadow Valley and Bog Hole Wildlife Area in the San Rafael Valley via FSR 765 was blocked in July 2018 by the owners of the Vaca Ranch. They are within their legal rights to lock the gate across the Forest Service Road. Issues such as gates left open allowing cattle to get out, trash and noise have, in many cases caused landowners to exercise their right to limit public access across private property.
The former owners of the ranch, the Timkin family, had allowed public use of the ¼ mile portion of the road that dips just inside the fence line on the western side of the ranch before cutting across a section of the private property and reentering public land.
This closure prevents access to other forest service roads on approximately 14 square miles of public land, an area popular with hunters and birders. The only way to reach the Bog Hole Wildlife Area is by parking on the side of the Patagonia San Rafael Road (FSR 58) and walking 1.5 miles across the grasslands. Not only does this limit access, Britt Oleson, AZGF Wildlife Manager for the Patagonia area, is concerned that cars pulled over along FSR 58 could cause grass fires.
“AZGFD reached out to the Vaca Ranch manager, Travis Nevins, to inquire about the gate,” Oleson said. “They were told the closure was primarily due to the gate being left open and cattle getting out. AZGFD offered to install a cattle guard to alleviate the concern while restoring access but was told the ranch was not interested in access agreements.”
The Timkin family sold the ranch to Stan Kroenke and his wife Ann, a niece of Sam Walton. Kroenke, the fourth largest private landowner in the United States as reported by “Business Insider,” with holdings of 1.3 million acres, owns several ranches across the United States and Canada. He is listed as the 58th wealthiest person on the Forbes 400 list, with a reported worth of 8.5 billion dollars. He and his family own the L.A. Rams, the Denver Nuggets, the Colorado Avalanche hockey team, the Colorado Rapids soccer team and the Arsenal Football Club in England. His company, Kroenke Sports and Entertainment, owns the Outdoor Channel and the Sportsman’s Channel.
Ironically, it is hunters, to whom these channels are targeted, who are the most vocal critics of the road closure across Kroenke’s property.
AZGF has been exploring alternatives to restore access for the public. One option would be to construct a new road that follows the west boundary of the ranch. Another option would be to do a land swap with the Vaca Ranch that would place the existing road completely on public land, and the third option would be to build a new road to the east of the ranch. The most viable solution at present seems to be the creation of a new road east of the Vaca Ranch.
Oleson has had several meetings with concerned groups who are working together to re-establish public access. “There are a lot of “critter groups” who are willing to assist,” she said, including Southern Arizona Quail Forever, the Mule Deer foundation and the National Wild Turkey Foundation. “There were many complaints about these closures and lots of public pressure. Hunters have been the most vocal group, Oleson said. “They’re the ones shouldering this. They pay lots of money to keep access to public lands open for everyone.”
Public access via Forest Service Roads at the northern end of the 34,000 acres of Forest Service land has also been cut off by private landowners. Vehicular access on FSR 138 to the public land in Red Rock Canyon, which lies to the north of Patagonia, was blocked in Sept. 2017, a legal closure where the road crosses a ranch on Red Rock Canyon road. (The owner asked not to be named in this article.) Approximately ¼ mile of road has been closed off.
“The closure prevents vehicular access to miles of USFS roads and limits foot access on approximately 36 square miles of public land, including important areas for hunting… and for birding,” Oleson said. It is now a ten-mile hike for Oleson to check one of her game cameras, as she has to come in on foot off of the Arizona Trailhead on Harshaw Rd.
“As frustrating as this closure is for me, I totally get it,” Oleson said, noting that traffic was passing by within 60 feet of the ranch headquarters. “If we could get access through the HudBay property, the roads already exist that would restore access to the northern half of the Forest Service land,” she added. HudBay owns 1580 acres on the east side of Hwy 82 north of Sonoita Springs, part of its mitigation plan to offset water usage at their proposed copper mine north of Sonoita. This is the area that is also being looked at for possible access to the Arizona Trail if plans to reroute it are successful.