Christmas Tree Lake on White Mountain Apache land

Arizona’s White Mountain Apache Country

Lee Allen
7/20/11

Whatever peaks your outdoor adrenalin, few states can match the diversity of natural landscape found in Arizona --- from desert flatlands filled with cactus and sagebrush to a series of man-made and fish-filled inland lakes to the four season draw of White Mountain high country.

It is here, in the home of the White Mountain Apache Tribe, that you will find the largest stand of Ponderosa Pine trees in the country, thick forests of spruce, aspen, and oak trees, snow-capped mountains that climb to 12,000 feet, deep canyons that dazzle the senses, and meandering streams that harbor tranquility.

The attractions have been here before history was written down.  Elk grazed and bugled across tules.  Deer sipped from the seeps.  Wild turkeys scratched the grassy hillsides.  And Pueblo hunters stalked game with their spears and atlatis.  Although the game stalkers and their weapons are different today, hunters and anglers and other outdoor counterparts from campers and hikers to snow/water/cross-country skiers continue to make the trip up the mountain in pursuit of pleasure.

And reservation boundaries are at the heart of this high country hideaway where tourism efforts rank at the top of Apache tribal revenue generators.  “The Mountain Spirits watch over our land and its people and the Creator has blessed us with the most pristine beauty anyone could imagine,” says Chairman Ronnie Lupe.  “Using what Mother Earth has given us, we are working hard to increase economic development by enhancing Tribal Tourism Department efforts.  Tourism not only brings jobs to our community, but dollars that can be used to replenish and sustain our natural beauty.  As caretakers and stewards of our land, we have an opportunity to make new friends from our tourism efforts.  Through this office, we’re encouraging every member of the tribe to become a tourism spokesperson and create a positive image of what we can offer.”

And the need to generate incoming revenue, especially in an economic downturn, becomes paramount.

Much of the effort at drawing tourists into the outdoor environment falls on the shoulders of the Wildlife and Outdoor Recreation Division, a small-but-dedicated department that not only is responsible for law enforcement to ensure compliance of tribal rules and regulations, but presenting programs and events designed to generate additional revenue.

Combine the specialty programs with daily sales of licenses and permits and, according to division director John Caid, the overall outdoor category brings in some $4 million annually from sales of permits and licenses.  “We’re a primary revenue generator because we have a lot to offer --- including some of the most beautiful country in the southwest that is centered within three population centers, Albuquerque, Phoenix, and Tucson.”

Hunting, in general, and Trophy Bull Elk hunts in specific, generate the biggest chunk of incoming dollars, with elk revenue alone estimated at $1.9 million.  In addition to a limited number of  trophy elk tags auctioned off for large sums, three separate elk camps are held on the 1.6-million-acre reservation during the peak of the rut, generally mid-September to early October.  A more affordable Management Bull Elk hunt is also available as are other trophy big-game packages involving pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, black bear, javelina, mountain lion, and spring and fall turkey.

A variety of options also exist for anglers.  While the state and world record for Apache trout (5 pounds, 15½ ounces), the state record for brown trout (22 pounds, 9 ounces), and Arizona’s record brook trout (4 pounds 15 ounces) were taken from other reservation lakes, lots of lunkers lurk in Christmas Tree Lake where brood stock from local hatcheries are transferred.  This seasonal trophy lake, closed and off-limits during winter months, opens its season with an exclusive 20-person-per-day special Fishing Camp every June.  Participants can fish all day long for hungry 4-pound trout.

By-the-numbers, there are 800 miles of streams (40 of them) and 2,300 acres of lakes and reservoirs  (17 of them) to choose from.  Some lakes are catch-and-release while others are fly-fishing only.  Fishing guides are available for hire.  And if you crave solitude --- even pricey alone time --- the tribe will rent you exclusive private use of the 19-acre Hurricane Lake for $300 a day or the 37-acre Cyclone Lake for $400 daily.

“We cater to a number of different types of fishermen and try to make them all happy,” says tribal biologist Tim Gatewood.  “Especially for kids, we stock lakes along the highway for easy access --- although these waters get hit pretty hard during the summer.”

While the Salt River is open year-long to tubing and river rafting, water flow for whitewater rafting experiences is best during peak spring runoff (March through May).  In the Lower Salt River area and a portion of Cibecue Creek Canyon, fans of technical hiking and climbing (canyoneering) can bring their pitons and harnesses and rappel to their hearts content.

A recent addition to all these permit-required outdoor opportunities, tribal wolf biologist Krista Beazley has started another money making adventure, Apache Wilderness Journeys (in conjunction with Defenders of Wildlife).  “I saw how much interest there was in the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program at Yellowstone National Park, so we decided to incorporate our tribal cultural aspect with the wolf aspect into a 5-day eco-tour experience,” Beazley says.

Starting with a single event in 2010, the tribe will sponsor two more eco-tours in June of this year and look to expand even further next summer.  “Clients loved the culture, habitat and wildlife in our remote camping area, so on the last night, so pitch black you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, we began to howl like wolves and actually got a spontaneous wolf response.  That single feedback from the wild just made the trip complete for attendees…and helped our promotional advertising for future trips to come.”

Obtain additional information about available recreational opportunities, permits required, and fees involved by contacting the White Mountain Apache Wildlife & Outdoor Recreation Division, www.wmatoutdoors.org, gamefish@wmat.us, or by calling (928) 338 4385.

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