Draining a large part of northeastern Arizona and a portion of far western New Mexico, the Little Colorado River winds it way from forested headwaters in the White Mountains down through woodlands and grasslands and finally to the arid depths of the western Grand Canyon (see map). The drainage basin's high southern edge is within the Sitgreaves and Apache National Forests, while most of the Little Colorado's valley is within the Navajo and Hopi Reservations. Biotic communities found in the region include subalpine conifer forest, mixed-conifer forest, ponderosa pine forest, semi-arid grasslands, and small riparian communities.
Although the Little Colorado River Basin has been occupied by Native Americans, including Navajo and Hopi groups, for hundreds of years, intensive settlement of the region was undertaken by Mormon colonists in the late 1800s. Under direct orders from Latter Day Saints church leader, Brigham Young, hundreds of settlers were sent out on a mission to occupy every arable valley along the Little Colorado and its main tributary, Silver Creek, to the south. These attempts were highly successful within the Little Colorado River Basin and along Silver Creek until the 1960s when non-Mormon immigration and rapid economic development transformed these towns into economic outposts of Arizona's political economy.
By 1900, twenty or so Mormon farming communities existed in the region, including Snowflake, Showlow, Alpine and St. John's. However, success came at a high cost for these settlers; environmental instability and variability created many difficult challenges. In this arid environment, agricultural subsistence depended upon manipulation of water by means of dams, irrigation canals and reservoirs. Unpredictable precipitation, short growing seasons, marginal soils, silting of reservoirs, increasing saltiness of the river downstream, and overgrazing of grasslands created many problems. The most catastrophic obstacle was frequent washout of dams. St. Joseph, for example, constructed nine dams in the course of eighteen years, due to repeated flooding.
--Researched and written by Shannon Kelly
The Social and Ecological Consequences of Early Cattle Ranching in the Little Colorado River Basin. Examines the early development of cattle ranching in the Little Colorado River Basin, the various factors which contributed to overgrazing in the region, and the pervasive effects that early commercial cattle ranching had on the local environment. Adapted from a published journal article by William S. Abruzzi.
Ecology and Mormon colonization in the Little Colorado River Basin, Arizona. The successful agricultural settlement by Mormon pioneers of the arid and climatically variable Colorado Plateau was eventually achieved by a system of tithing redistribution. An original land-use essay for CP-LUHNA by Dr. William S. Abruzzi.