IBA of the Month

Pinlaeño Mountains IBA

Rigg's Lake at the Top of Mt. Graham in the Pinaleño Mountains

Rigg’s Lake at the Top of Mt. Graham in the Pinaleño Mountains

The Pinaleño Mountains are one of the most northern of the Coronado Forest “Sky Islands”. Located in Graham County and south of the agricultural community of Safford, this mountain has provided resources for settlers in the region. The Douglas fir and pine provided lumber for surrounding communities. During the military campaigns Heliograph Peak was so named because a U.S. Army heliograph station was located there. The heliographs were a mirror signal communication system from Santa Fe to San Diego. The paved road is access to a fishing lake constructed by the Arizona Game and Fish Department and numerous campgrounds.

Located near the northern limit of the Chiricahua Apache homeland and the southern margins of Western Apache territory, the range is one of the Western Apache’s four holiest mountains and is considered sacred by all of the region’s Native peoples. Since a determination by the Keeper of the Register in 2002, Dził Nchaa Si An, as it is known in the Western Apache language, ranks as the largest and most extensive (~330,000 acres) property listed on or formally determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

Unlike many of the other mountains in the area, the Pinaleños have no lava deposits. The lava-based mountains found throughout Arizona tend to be barren, whereas the Pinaleños (and others) have a large number of trees, including many that pre-date Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. Researchers from the University of Arizona Tree Ring Laboratory have discovered living trees that date back to 1257 and 1270 AD. Botanists say the Douglas firs have survived because the rocky cliffs of the mountains have served as a fire barrier for them. The scientists also found dead firs that dated as far back as 1102 AD.

Pinaleño Mountain summits are headwaters for numerous perennial streams that tumble through five major botanical zones. Located between the southern Rocky Mountains and Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental, and biologically isolated for millennia, the higher elevations have provided refuge for relict populations of plants and animals with adaptive strategies rooted in Pleistocene ice age environmental conditions. Of particular note are stands of the oldest conifer trees in the U.S. Southwest and associated habitats for threatened and endangered species, especially the endangered Mount Graham Red Squirrel.

Mount Graham, with some of the clearest skies in the world, and is home to the Mount Graham International Observatory area, where multiple organizations have set up large telescopes in a few separate observatories authorized by a rare peace-time Congressional waiver of U.S. environmental laws. The United States Congress authorized construction of observatories on the mountain peaks in 1988.

The primary conservation issue in this range is Climate Change which could trigger outbreaks of tree disease and possibly catastrophic fires. Other concerns include habitat damage due to recreational use. The forest service is currently working on a management plan to address these issues.