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Seeing potential Gila Bend national monument from a new perspective — 1,000 feet up

On a recent Wednesday morning, I drive up to an airfield outside Buckeye to take a ride over Gila Bend on a six-seater plane. The trip gave me the opportunity to see a part of the state that a lot of people would say is misunderstood.

When I arrive, I’m greeted in the parking lot by Lea Linse, a representative from a company called EcoFlight, an excursion airline that partners with conservation groups. Lea is holding a clipboard.

 "I just have a quick sign-in form for ya here, just our waiver. … And then we’ll send ya photos and things after the flight as well," Linse said.

With the relevant rights waived, I make my way over to the airstrip, where a very small plane is waiting on the runway.

Standing under the wings of the tiny aircraft, I meet my fellow passengers.

"I’m Sam, I’m from KJZZ," I said.

"I’m Aaron Wright, I’m from Archaeology Southwest," said Wright.

Wright, it turns out, has spent a lot of time exploring the land we’re about to fly over. It’s a place with heritage, he says, and even if it’s not his heritage, being here elicits a sense of reverence.

"I can definitely feel it," he said.

"And how do you experience that feeling?" I asked.

"Uh — goosebumps?" Wright said with a laugh.

A woman in a polo shirt stands next to Wright. She looks a little nervous.

"My name is Tara Ortiz, I’m from San Lucy District Council," said Ortiz.

"Nice to meet you guys. Have you ever gotten this view before?" I asked.

"No, kind of nervous, it’s small," she said.

"Yeah — sort of a 'truck with wings' situation," I said.

"I trust a truck," said Ortiz as she laughed.

Our captain, Bruce Gordon, assures us we can trust him.

"Uh, hi everyone, good morning. … My name’s Mike Quigley, I’m [radio static] ..." said Quiqley.

Quigley, I will later learn, is the Arizona state director of the Wilderness Society. As the truck-plane climbs into low altitude over the runway, Quigley explains the goal of our flight, with occasional interruptions from air traffic control.

"If you look out the left side of the aircraft, you’ll see the Gila Bend Mountain, and then at 11 o’clock, the high point there is Wolseley Peak, which is pretty much right in the middle of the proposal for the Great Bend of the Gila National Monument," said Quigley.

"Tell us, Mike, what the intention is for this area," said Gordon.

"Yeah, so this area is [radio static] roughly 375,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management Federal Public Land, classic Sonoran Desert habitat-type, home to species like Desert Bighorn Sheep, Desert Tortoise, LeConte’s Thrasher …" said Quigley.

The six of us crammed into the plane, pouring sweat and doing our best to make out what Quigley is saying.

"… Super rich in cultural and historical [radio static]. So our intention here is we think this area deserves a higher level of protection than general use Bureau of Land Management Land. So we’re seeking a National Monument Designation from President Biden, something that he can do under his own authority under something called the Antiquities Act …" saod Quigley.

Later, back on the ground, I’ll receive a folder of documents that lays this all out without additional commentary from the airport dispatcher. Quigley and the Wilderness Society are part of a coalition that runs the gamut from ranchers to librarians to microbrewers to the Buckeye Valley Chamber of Commerce. They’ve all come together to encourage the Biden administration to designate this region of mountains, ancient trails and washes, all nestled into the bend of the Gila River, as a National Monument.

"I’m gonna bank left and show you something here," said Gordon.

Back on the plane, though, I’m still struggling to understand what we’re looking at.

"Wow, this is really quite interesting!" said Gordon.

"Yeah, pretty spectacular landscape. That’s Saddle Mountain. It’s a pretty important area for bighorn sheep. It’s what’s called a lambing area. It’s when the ewes gather in the springtime to give birth to the next generation of sheep," said Quigley.

Now don’t get me wrong. Nothing about this flight would dissuade a person from wanting to preserve sheep habitats. And my pre-takeoff jitters, it turns out, were completely unnecessary. Gordon is a sure-handed and thoughtful pilot. He takes care to position us above the most breathtaking views, and navigates minor pockets of turbulence with ease. But the whole experience feels a little … vague. I haven’t felt the goosebumps yet.

But then Ortiz, the one who was a little nervous about the size of the plane, speaks up.

"If you look to your right, there is the Fortaleza. And that is a historical site for us. That’s where we have dwellings, up there. And not so many years — this was in the ‘40s — before the land was taken from us, people would live there. And then they moved us into a little 40 acre [garbled] south of that. Um, you have a lot of petroglyphs out there, burial sites. … Um, I heard your question to this gentleman here about you feel when you go out there. We’re still out there, so we’re still here. We still use that," said Ortiz.

That person whose question Ortiz says she heard , I realize that’s me. I make a note to ask her some questions as soon as we’re on the ground.

"I’m from the San Lucy District Council, of the Tohono O’odham nation," Ortiz said.

In the 1960s, the federal government relocated a group of Tohono O’odham from the land they occupied in the Great Bend of the Gila.

"We called it the Old Village, which would be right off of the Gila. The government came and told us to move because they wanted to use it as farming, and so they made us move to what is now San Lucy District, which is 40 acres," said Ortiz.

Ortiz says there’s a mountaintop in their former home that San Lucy residents still go back to.

"We’d always go there to do the ceremonies, go pay homage to where our people once was," she said.

As the years have gone by, however, the mountaintop has been overrun by locals who either don’t know — or don’t care — about its history.

"It just became well-known to other people that aren’t of the descendants from that area to just say, 'This is land that’s not used, so let’s make races, let’s, you know … dirt bikes' … the townspeople going up to our sacred site and taking the artifacts from there," said Ortiz. "... It’s a taught trait, but I also think that a lot of people don’t know that we still exist and that it’s something we still care for. And they don’t care to ask, either."

Ortiz says that if the coalition is successful in having the Great Bend of the Gila region designated as a National Monument, there would be rangers patrolling the area who could put a stop to the vandalism and theft. She wants everyone to be able to enjoy the natural splendor of the Great Bend.

"It’s something that everyone needs to know about. I mean, I know — I like to go dirt-riding and climb mountains, too. But there’s a level of respect to where you’re going to do that at. If you could respect the land, then you could obviously have fun with it, too," she said.

Ortiz tells me that she liked seeing the mountain from the plane. But she feels most connected when she goes up there on foot.

"In our way, when we go up there to the mountain, you go up there to meditate, you go up there to ask for prayer. Um, so it’s something where if you need to do it, you do it, but you don’t ever go up there just to mess with things," Ortiz said.

I ask Ortiz about what Wright said — that when he’s out there in the Great Bend, he gets goosebumps. She says that’s not exactly how she’d describe it.

"It’s a different feeling — I don’t really know how to explain it. I just know you go there and you lay down and … just let your air flow in the wind. And just close your eyes … and just imagine."

KJZZ’s The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ’s programming is the audio record.

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Sam Dingman is a reporter and host for KJZZ’s The Show. Prior to KJZZ, Dingman was the creator and host of the acclaimed podcast Family Ghosts.