Friday, October 24, 2014

New Desert Park and Preserve

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Northwest Valley residents have long been deprived of sweeping desert park land and paint ball facilities. That’s about to change.


Imagine one of Maricopa County’s biggest stretches of unspoiled desert and Western heritage as a perfectly drawn, dusty canvas begging to be hiked, biked and camped on. Now, add major nesting sites for raptors, indigenous plant life and rock features, and the area quickly becomes a laid-back, Old West counterpart to the hectic motorized mania of Lake Pleasant.


That’s the vision for Vulture Mountain, a 60,000-acre swath of open land about 40 miles northwest of Surprise. Once abuzz with miners and ranchers, the area has long charmed in-the-know hikers, horse riders and off-roading fans with its quiet desertscape.

Officials from Wickenburg, Maricopa County and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management have teamed up to develop up to 1,000 acres of the area, adding hiking trails, equestrian areas and basic campsites over the next few years. Long-term plans include access to electricity and running water, a garden, an amphitheater and areas for archery, paint ball and off-highway vehicle usage. There are also suggestions to add venues to accommodate club gatherings, mineral shows and other organized events.

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It promises to be a huge coup for northwest Valley residents, who’ve watched as 120,000 acres of recreation areas developed elsewhere in the county, leaving them with lengthy drives to indulge their inner camper. Around Vulture Mountain, mining and ranching have taken their toll on the landscape. But officials believe granting more public access will help preserve the area and its raptor population for generations by encouraging respect for the site.

“Our goal is not to create an urban type of park but to provide facilities that are gateways into the natural environment,” says R.J. Cardin, Maricopa County Parks and Recreation director. “We want to provide that outdoor experience and preserve a piece of Maricopa County that would stand the test of time.”

The process began when the Wickenburg Cultural and Conservation Foundation approached county officials in 2007 with the idea of turning the area into a park. The group was concerned that annexations authorized by officials in Buckeye and Surprise to extend their municipal borders and spur development would damage Wickenburg’s Western heritage and unspoiled desert. The absence of a plan left the area vulnerable to roads, power lines and other construction that would detract from the natural beauty.

“The growth from the south was heading our way in a quick manner. We felt if we went to the county and BLM to create protection, we could keep Wickenburg history at the forefront,” says Julie Brooks, executive director for the Wickenburg Chamber of Commerce. “If this can be accomplished, it really will say something for our state, the county and our town.”

Officials solicited public comments over the summer, and the final plan should be released later this fall, Cardin says. Vulture Mountain currently has a 4-mile hiking trail to Vulture Peak, which rewards hikers with picturesque views (think Spur Cross in Cave Creek). There is a series of informal trails, a gravel parking area and a vault toilet.

But many raptors will likely fly the coop before the project is complete: The total plan may take up to 30 years to finish, and finances play a large role in the timeline. Cardin says it’s too early to determine how much the undertaking would cost the county or the BLM, the other partnering agency that will manage the park. It’s also unknown who would be responsible for policing the area and the increased public presence. Duties could fall equally onto the county and BLM, with some help from the town of Wickenburg, Cardin says. Coordinated volunteer patrols from Wickenburg groups is another option, says Steve Cohn, Hassayampa Field Manager for BLM.

“This example highlights what’s possible when multiple levels of government work together,” Cohn says. “It’s going to be a great model and hopefully other towns will look to try something similar.”

 

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