|By Joanna Dodder Nellans|
Contributing Reporter/Daily Courier
One of the most spectacular spots along the Verde River is now in public hands.
The 139-acre Packard Ranch, a rare desert riparian ecosystem, is now Forest Service property after decades of off-and-on efforts to acquire the inholding.
The historic ranch sits at the confluence of the Verde River and Sycamore Creek. Just above it is the 55,937-acre Sycamore Canyon Wilderness Area, originally Arizona's first primitive area in 1935 and one of the state's first wilderness areas. The red-walled canyon is 21 miles long and up to seven miles wide in places.
"To have two flowing streams where they converge, that's pretty rare for Arizona," said Ken Simeral, lands team leader for the Prescott National Forest. "That's a score." The Prescott and Coconino forests converge at the ranch.
When a group of investors bought the ranch about a decade ago, Forest Service officials became concerned about the possibility of losing the main public access to the wilderness area, said Judy Adams, Coconino Forest lands team leader. The Parsons Trail originates on the Packard Ranch, and the agency had no official trail easement through the ranch. The trailhead is located about 10 miles north of Clarkdale via Forest Road 131.
Worse yet, the property could have ended up covered with homes.
When a Realtor contacted the Forest Service to say the ranch was for sale, the Forest Service asked the Trust for Public Land to act as a middleman because it can act faster than a federal agency.
TPL bought the ranch in three phases in 2007-2009 for $4 million from a group of Scottsdale investors that had purchased the ranch from the Phelps Dodge mining company about nine years ago.
"The Packard Ranch property is a true Arizona jewel, and TPL is very pleased to have permanently conserved this unique and critical property to benefit future generations of Arizonans through our partnership with the Prescott and Coconino national forests," said Jason Corzine, Southwest program director for the Trust for Public Land.
The Forest Service recently completed the third phase of the ranch purchase from TPL.
The federal Land and Water Conservation Fund provided the bulk of the money. It's the federal government's main source of money for land purchases. The fund gets its money from royalties that energy companies pay in exchange for oil and gas extraction from federal offshore leases.
Part of the Forest Service money also came from the Federal Lands Transaction Facilitation Act, which expired in 2010. TPL hopes to see the act restored, TPL Project Manager Michael Patrick said.
The Nature Conservancy chipped in $400,000 from a Doris Duke Charitable Foundation grant that TNC had received, so the Forest Service had to come up with only $3.6 million of the $4 million appraised value.
"It's a pretty amazing place," said Dan Campbell of The Nature Conservancy in Prescott, which also has facilitated several other Forest Service purchases along the Verde. He cited the substantial sycamore tree gallery, endangered native fish, otters and beavers as some of the ranch's gems.
Hikers also might see bald eagles, yellow-billed cuckoos, black hawks, peregrine falcons and bats flying overhead.
The Packard family reportedly homesteaded the ranch in the 1890s and grew food to sell to miners in Jerome and Clarkdale.
The Sedona Verde Valley Tourism Council relates an interesting legend about the Packard couple.
"Unfortunately, Mr. Packard had a tendency to spend the money as fast as he collected it, leaving Mrs. Packard to tend to the ranch," the Tourism Council's website says. "Legend has it that Mrs. Packard headed to Prescott, forged his name on a quit claim deed and sold the ranch for $1,800. She purchased two horses and a rifle and headed off for parts unknown."
Lee Smart homesteaded the ranch in 1920, Adams said. Phelps Dodge reportedly bought it in 1950.
The historic Packard Cabin, a squatter's home to hermits and hobos and hippies over the years, burned to the ground in 2004.
The cabin remains are visible from the Verde Canyon Railroad that offers scenic train rides up along the Verde River from Clarkdale.