Adovcating to Protect Observatory Mesa

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Recently Habitat Harmony advocated for the protection of Observatory Mesa. Below you can read the letter they provided the Coconino County government as well as view a fact sheet (download) about Observatory Mesa.


Dear Commissioner Hickman,

We are writing on behalf of Habitat Harmony, Inc., to encourage you to approve Coconino County’s request to reclassify State Trust lands (Sections 6, 8, 12, 18, and 19) on Observatory Mesa near Flagstaff as suitable for conservation purposes under the Arizona Preserve Initiative Petition 35-116166. Our group supports this reclassification because it fits with our mission of promoting protection of wildlife habitat and open space in northern Arizona. Protecting these particular parcels also helps secure night-time public viewing and future astronomical research opportunities at Lowell Observatory by limiting proximate light pollution.  

In 1998, the Flagstaff Open Space and Greenways Plan identified state trust (and other) lands on Observatory Mesa as priority areas for retention due to open space and resource values. These particular parcels include diverse landscapes and habitats, which provide year-round habitat and migratory corridors for large mammals including mule deer, elk, mountain lion, black bear, and pronghorn. The habitat may also be suitable for sensitive species such as northern goshawk, Mexican spotted owl, and Gunnison’s prairie dog. Suitable habitat also exists for a diversity of reptiles and amphibians, including plateau fence lizard, tree lizard, greater short-horned lizard, many-lined skink, Madrean alligator lizard, western terrestrial gartersnake, gophersnake, Sonoran mountain kingsnake, Arizona black rattlesnake, boreal chorus frog, Arizona mountain treefrog, and tiger salamander.

We support the petition recently submitted by the City of Flagstaff seeking reclassification of state trust lands at Observatory Mesa for conservation purposes, with subsequent acquisition through the Arizona Preserve and Growing Smarter Initiatives. Habitat Harmony, Inc. urges you to share our commitment to protecting wildlife habitat and open space in Coconino County by permitting this reclassification.


Erika Nowak, PhD and the Board of Habitat Harmony:  
Tish Bogan-Ozmun
Sherry Golden
Bobbe Fitzgibbons
Jean Myers
Emily Nelson
Nate Renn


Observatory Mesa Facts: [download]

Why is Observatory Mesa special?

Protected Open Space/Unique Scenic BeautyObservatory Mesa exhibits one of the most desired qualities of open space, natural conditions with little evidence of current human activities.
Observatory Mesa overlooks Flagstaff and much of the surrounding countryside, with unobstructed views extending north to the San Francisco Peaks and south to the Mogollon Rim.
The Mesa provides a scenic gateway into Flagstaff from I-40 and historic Route 66.

Geologic and Topographic Features

Observatory Mesa is an elongated, flat topped, volcanic feature lying west of Flagstaff and south of the San Francisco Peaks. It is generally 200 to 400 feet higher than the adjacent land with a slope to the south. A-1 Mountain is at the higher, northwest end of the Mesa. This 8,300 foot cinder cone was the source of a 300,000-year-old volcanic flow that formed Observatory Mesa. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad grade follows the contour at the base of the steep, southerly edge of the Mesa.


The vegetation throughout is primarily Ponderosa Pine and Gambel Oak forest, with open sections atop the Mesa supporting extensive grassland tracts and shrub steppe. There are woody species that provide important wildlife forage including New Mexico locust, mountain mahogany, juniper, smooth sumac, Apache plume, wild rose and wax currant.

The Mesa top provides seasonal grazing for elk, deer, mountain lion, and antelope. Fox, black bear, porcupines, skunks, Abert squirrels, song birds of the open grasslands, pine forest and oaks, and birds of prey like the northern goshawk and great horned owl call the Mesa home. This diversity is due to the mixture of grassland, forests, canyons and slopes, and the location of the Mesa between the San Francisco Peaks and the lower lands to the south.

Some of the most important habitat features in these parcels are the drainages, tanks, and seeps, which support a higher vegetative diversity for wildlife than surrounding areas. These water sources support wetland vegetation that attracts wildlife species such as great blue heron, several duck species, chorus frog, and tiger salamander

Watershed Integrity

Observatory Mesa contains several intermittent streams including two tributaries of the Rio de Flag. There are several water tanks in this area including Matson, Truck, and Lang. Tunnel Springs and Old Town Springs are part of the Mesa’s system of springs. The conservation designation of these lands would lend to the overall integrity of the Rio de Flag watershed. 

Cultural Resources

Observatory Mesa played an important part in pioneer histry and Native American history. There are several old roadbeds supported by hand-built rock walls. A-1 Mountain took the name from the A-1 Bar brand of the Arizona Cattle Company. Established in the early 1880s, a system of water holes on Observatory Mesa called the A-1 tanks is a remnant of the ranch operations. Between 1870 and 1890, Observatory Mesa was the primary sheepherder route to the Peaks for summer grazing. Historic carvings on the trunks of aspen trees by the Basque sheepherders commemorate that time.

The old sandstone railroad bridge abutments found just south of the current tracks are the oldest in Flagstaff. These are remnants of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad line, which came to Flagstaff in 1881, providing the economic stimulation that turned Flagstaff from a settlement to a town.

Recreation and Accessibility

Observatory Mesa is attractive as a recreational area for both residents and visitors. Camping, biking, hiking, running, snowshoeing, bird watching, and cross country skiing are just a few of the uses. The existing Observatory Mesa Urban Trail extends west from Thorpe Park through Section 17 of the astronomical preserve, is adjacent to Section 8 and ends near the northeast corner of Section 18. According to the 2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, 1.3 million wildlife viewing participants spend $838 million in Arizona annually. Sites like Observatory Mesa significantly contribute to the local tourism economy.

Scientific/Economic Value

The expansive viewshed of Observatory Mesa enticed the founders of Lowell Observatory to locate here near the turn of the century. Lowell Observatory has been a significant and stalwart Flagstaff economic factor for over 100 years. In particular, its reputation attracted the Flagstaff Station of the U.S. Naval Observatory and the U.S. Geological Survey Astrogeological branch to locate here. Protecting Observatory Mesa positively impacts the observatories, provides protection from further light pollution, and strengthens the astrogeological sector of our economy. 

A Message to Humans

"I used to be a city fellow.  I grew up with the city noises of cars and trains and machines and humans.  My family lived close to downtown Flagstaff not far from the railroad tracks along Route 66.  What a busy, frightening place it was."
Read My Letter to You

Prairie Dog Life

Click on the burrow images to find out more.

Nursing Chamber

A mother keeps her young pups safe while the other Prairie Dogs investigate the snake.

Entering the Burrow

A prairie dog hears an emergency cry of "snake" and goes to investigate.

Listening chamber

A prairie dog sits listening just beneath the surface of the ground.

The Rattlesnake

The rattlesnake found a prairie dog burrow to sleep in but has been discovered by the prairie dogs.

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