The Research Ranch was established in 1968 by the Appleton family as a large scale enclosure by which various land uses such as livestock grazing could be evaluated. The Research Ranch is approximately 60 miles SE of Tucson, AZ and is a complicated partnership among land owners and federal land administrative agencies: Coronado National Forest, Bureau of Land Management, Resolution Copper Mining Co., The Research Ranch Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, and National Audubon Society. NAS manages the facility as a sanctuary for native biota and ecological field station via contractual agreements with each entity. The Research Ranch is a Center/Sanctuary of NAS, administered through the Audubon Arizona state office in Phoenix. Audubon’s strategic plan is to achieve conservation results on a broad scale by leveraging the NAS network and engaging diverse people; the Research Ranch is evaluated by NAS for its support of the following conservation concerns: Climate Change, Water, Working Lands and Bird Friendly Communities.
Land Use History of the Research Ranch
Humans have influenced the ecology of Southwestern North America for millennia in a succession beginning with Native Americans. Several chronologies have been suggested but in general, it is recognized that Big Game Hunters arrived approximately 10000 bce. Other groups followed such as the Cochise, Preceramic O’otam, the Formative O’otam (Pima), Hohokam and the Sobaipuri whose occupancy overlapped arrival of Spanish explorers such as Fray Marcos de Niza, Francisco Vasuez de Coronado, Padre Eusebio Kino and Captain Juan Mateo Manje. Modern Native Americans relied on gathering of native plants, hunting, and practiced some horticulture on floodplains. Apaches moved into the area near what is currently the Research Ranch in approximately 1680 ce and had largely replaced the indigenous tribes by the end of the 17th century. The warlike Apaches and their allies, plus the introduced disease, malaria, kept settlement by those of European descent at low levels until the 1870s.
Large herbivores such as camels, horses, mastodons and mammoth had largely disappeared by the time the Big Game Hunters arrived, or shortly thereafter. Although bones have been found in archaeological remains that might be bison (Bison bison), the number of sites is small and it is generally accepted that ecological impact of these large herbivores did not extend westward much beyond the Pecos River. Consequently, the grasslands of the area did not co-evolve with the pressures of large herds of large herbivores. Domestic livestock were not thought to have significant impact on the landscape under Spanish or Mexican rule. The Gadsen Purchase 1853/54 transferred ownership from Mexico to the United States, but relatively little changed in respect to land management until after the Civil War when the combined efforts of the American military and westward migration of Americans enabled development of a large livestock industry.
A combination of factors including ignorance of the climate and ecology of the region led to a series of overgrazing events in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which resulted in loss of topsoil, changes in hydrology, and the realization that grasslands of the Southwest present unique challenges to ranchers. Much of the modern management of the prairies has sought to strike a balance between the economic necessities associated with ranching on a landscape that had little or no natural defenses against grazing by domestic livestock.
The area now known as the Research Ranch was homesteaded by numerous individuals including T. B. Titus, Wm. Roth, James L. Finley, Juan Telles, Francis Cuthbert Fenderson, Willard T. Roath, and John D. Riggs. Many of the homesteaders were already present when the federal lands were surveyed in 1912. In the mid-20th century Frank and Ariel Appleton purchased the deeded land and grazing allotments of the Clark Ranch and the Swinging H Ranch (approximately 8,000 acres total) and created the Elgin Hereford Cattle Ranch. By the late 1960s the Appletons had determined the land they owned and leased (approximately 8,000 acres) could play a larger purpose than as a small cattle ranch. In 1968 they sold their cattle and converted the ranch into a research facility to serve as a reference area and control site to evaluate large scale land uses, including but not limited to grazing by domestic livestock. The Appletons formed a non-profit organization, The Research Ranch Inc., to administer the facility. The Forest Service and the Arizona State Trust Land Department agreed to suspend grazing on the allotments held by the Appletons.
In the late 1970s the Appletons sought a conservation organization to take over management of the Research Ranch to ensure the longevity of the facility. Audubon had become concerned about the decrease in population of birds that were dependent on grasslands, so accepted management of the Research Ranch in 1980 under conditions outlined in a Memorandum of Agreement between Audubon and The Research Ranch Foundation (previously incorporated as The Research Ranch Inc.). The Appletons donated over half of their private land to TRR/TRRF which was then transferred to Audubon. The Whittell Foundation established an endowment within Audubon, distributions from which to be used solely to support the Research Ranch. The name of the ecological field station was changed to the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch of the National Audubon Society, Inc.
In 1982, Audubon entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the Forest Service for management of grazing allotments within the Coronado Ranger District known as Chuney #1 and 2. A portion of the land administered by the Forest Service within the Research Ranch has been designated the Elgin Research Natural Area.
Audubon took over the leases of the Arizona State Trust Lands formerly managed by the Appletons/TRR Inc. By 1986 the Bureau of Land Management acquired title of the State Trust Lands within the Research Ranch plus additional property owned by Frank Appleton and signed a Cooperative Agreement with Audubon regarding management of these parcels. Land administered by BLM within the boundary of the Research Ranch has been declared the Appleton-Whittell Research Area of Critical Environmental Concern and is included in the Las Cienegas Natural Conservation Area.
In 2004 Audubon and The Nature Conservancy of Arizona (TNC) entered into a Memorandum of Understanding assigning management responsibilities of a parcel associated with but disjunct from their Canelo Hills Cienega Preserve.
Upon the passing of Ariel Appleton, the Appleton children sold all remaining parcels held with clear title to Resolution Copper Mining Co. (RCM), a subsidiary of Rio Tinto Mining, dba Swift Current Land and Cattle Company. Audubon and RCM developed a management agreement in 2008 regarding these properties.
Additional details of the land use and certain land transactions of the Research Ranch are described in Conrad Bahre’s “Land-use History of the Research Ranch, Elgin, Arizona,” (1977) and by Glendon Collins in “A History of the Lands in the National Audubon Society’s Research Ranch near Elgin, in Santa Cruz County, Arizona,” (2008). Copies of each are housed in the Research Ranch library and are available in digital form in the website library under Literature Associated with AWRR.