Twenty-three years after purchasing the historic San Rafael Ranch House and the surrounding 3,557 acres, the Arizona State Legislature has finally provided enough money through the Heritage Fund to begin repairs and upgrades. This $1.5 million initiative will be the first step towards enabling public access to the ranch, which sits about a mile and a half north of Lochiel and the international border.
Officials from Arizona State Parks and Trails held a public meeting at the ranch house grounds on March 28 to seek community feedback and answer questions. Board members and staff, including Assistant Director Mike Weise, Board member Jeff Buchanan, of Patagonia, and Arianna Urban, State Historic Coordinator for AZ State Parks and Trails, were on hand as well as about 30 interested members of the public. There was much discussion about prioritizing repairs to the buildings and plans to open the property, as well as how to best protect it.
Preservation of the land as a ranch was a frequent topic, as well as possible uses of the house as a museum and a venue. “You want to keep it hard to get to,” Chuck Klingenstein, of Patagonia, said. “You don’t want to create so many improvements that you attract a lot of people. You don’t want to love the place to death.” Klingenstein reported that there were several comments from the audience that “this place was about ranching. Keep it as a working ranch that may have programs there.”
There are no definite plans to open the property to the public. “I never got a sense of a hard timeline,” Linda Shore, curator of the Patagonia Museum and president of the board of the Sky Islands Tourism Association. The first priority will be doing the necessary repairs to keep the buildings intact. “The roof is leaking, the bathrooms don’t work,” Shore said. “That $1.5 million won’t be nearly enough to stop it from rotting.”
Area residents reported that several sections of roofing have blown down off the outbuildings. Justin McEldowney, a Patagonia firefighter, told the Parks representatives that there was a real danger of wildfire destroying the ranch buildings and that there was a lack of water resources available for fighting fires.
“What it sounds like to me is they will be spending at least the next year getting the high priority repairs underway,” said Klingenstein. “They will also start a long-range operations plan draft that will help inform a capital facilities improvements plan. Once these are finalized, the project will need to go through the legislature to get funded.”
Arizona State Parks are dependent on funding from the legislature, according to Shore. She believes the path forward for the San Rafael Natural Area will ultimately depend on private funding. “We need to put together a new foundation,” she said. “If they don’t stop it from falling apart, it doesn’t matter what they plan to do with it. If they wait five more years, I fear it will be too far gone.”
The San Rafael Ranch was founded by Colin Cameron in 1882. Cameron was “known throughout the country for his pioneering ranching methods.” according to a 2003 University of Arizona master’s thesis by Jane Abigail Wayland. The Ranch House became the headquarters for the Greene Cattle Company in 1903. The Greene Cattle Company attracted the attention of Pancho Villa, who raided the San Rafael Ranch for horses on more than one occasion in the early 1910s.
The Ranch House, built in 1900 and designated as a National Historic District in 2008, was home to Greene’s descendants until the sale to AZ State Parks and Trails in 1999. The property has been closed to the public for safety reasons.
Public meetings for further input will be announced by the Arizona State Parks and Trails Board.