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Aldo Leopold and the Blue River: An Ironic Legacy Jack Stauder This article explores the relationship between the people and lands of the Blue River watershed, Arizona—a place known as “the Blue”—and the ideas and legacy of Aldo Leopold, together with the agency he served there, the U.S. Forest Service. This relationship manifests some of the major controversies and ironies inherent in ecological assumptions and intentions in twentieth-century America. The Blue River originates in the mountain country between Alpine, Arizona, and Luna, New Mexico. It zigzags south through the rugged canyons of the Blue Mountain Range and, except for one deviation into New Mexico, keeps to the Arizona side of the border as it flows south. The Blue watershed covers an area roughly twenty miles at its widest east to west, and more than forty miles as the crow flies from its origin in the north to its southern mouth. There the Blue merges with the San Francisco , which after Clifton, Arizona, joins the Gila River. The tributaries of the upper Blue begin in green forests of ponderosa pine, spruce, and fir at about eight thousand feet, while the lower Blue descends to just below four thousand feet in drier country dominated by juniper, cedar and pinyon. The upper Blue watershed receives on average about twenty inches of rain a year; the lower portion, about five fewer inches. Remote, rough and historically dangerous due to roving Apache bands—Geronimo’s among them—the Blue was never settled by the Spaniards and did not attract Anglo-American pioneers until the 1880s. Some came to farm, while others, especially Texans, brought ideas of running herds of cattle. The two pursuits were complementary, and by the 1890s a thriving ranching and farming community of about three hundred people was scattered along the river and its creeks. It was granted the post office of Blue, Arizona, which still exists and puts it on the map, if somewhat obscurely. Jack Stauder is professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. Journal of the Southwest 51, 3 (Autumn 2009) : 351–378 352  ✜  Journal of the Southwest Blue continued as primarily a ranching community for a hundred years until the mid-1990s. Then, rather abruptly, under environmentalist and political pressures from both inside and outside the U.S. Forest Service, the Alpine Ranger District of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest radically cut back the number of cattle permitted to graze on forest allotments on the Blue. The cuts ranged up to 80 percent and reduced cattle numbers far below the minimum that would allow families on the Blue to make a living by ranching, as their forebearers had. Some “permittees” (ranchers with Forest Service permits to graze an allotment of federally owned land) have since given up ranching altogether, others still keep the few cows allowed them, but all have had to seek income elsewhere. Ranches on the lower Blue lying in the Clifton Ranger District did not see similar cuts in the 1990s, but over the last twenty years two allotments have been retired and others acquired by absentee owners running few or no cattle. Only one family ranch there remains viable today, though sometimes up for sale.1 The decline of ranching on the Blue may partly be an unintentional legacy of Aldo Leopold. Though few persons living today on the Blue would be much aware of who he was and what he wrote, in American environmental circles Leopold is widely recognized and even revered for his writings on wild nature and the ethics of conservation, and for his early advocacy for creating wilderness areas within the U.S. national forests. Many who have read him are aware that the early part of his career was spent with the U.S. Forest Service in the Southwest, where he began developing his ideas. His initial posting as a freshly graduated forester in 1909 was to the newly created Apache National Forest in Arizona as a “forest assistant,” and his first important assignment there was actually on the Blue, as crew chief of a reconnaissance party taking inventory of timber there.2 The two years he was stationed at the Apache...


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pp. 351-377
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