Defending the Desert

Editorial StaffJanuary 1, 2012
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“We use our natural environment here to market Arizona and our resorts, to market our golf courses, but when it comes to really cherishing it, we fall down a little bit,” says Eric Gorsegner, associate director of the Sonoran Institute, one of the organizations spearheading The Sonoran Desert Heritage proposal.

Most of the undeveloped land in the western half of Maricopa County is publicly owned and federally managed. The Sonoran Desert proposal – if ratified by Congress – would render large swaths of it permanently off-limits to developers. Most of the proposed protections fall under the auspices of  “official wilderness,” pristine land that allows only foot traffic. A National Conservation Area would encompass and unify the wilderness. NCAs prevent privatization but allow motorized access and off-road recreation.

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Currently, Maricopa County has several official wilderness sites, but the parcels are far-flung and isolated, or what Gorsegner calls “crown jewels.” Such piecemeal efforts do little to preserve ecology. Conversely, by expanding and connecting the West Valley wilderness – home to thousands of species of native desert plants, 300 species of birds, Gila monsters and rare Sonoran Desert Tortoises – the Sonoran Desert proposal would preserve the natural animal migration passages that allow desert species to maintain healthy habitats and breeding. 

es – or about 1 percent of Arizona’s total land mass – in and around Tonopah, Wickenburg and Gila Bend. It’s a huge undertaking backed by more than 80 official supporters of a surprisingly diverse mix: Luke Air Force Base, preservation groups, multiple city mayors, real estate and solar-power companies, local businesses and even churches.

“This has been a ground-up rather than a top-down project,” Gorsegner says. Five years ago, the Sonoran Institute started the effort by evaluating the proposed areas in western Maricopa County, where personnel mapped out areas sufficiently unspoiled to constitute wilderness. They then overlaid maps illustrating wildlife migration passages, high biodiversity, future transportation and solar-development projects, and even Luke Air Force Base flight paths.

Rusty Mitchell, the director of the community initiatives team at Luke Air Force Base, says the project is a win-win proposition for the base – a moratorium on development preserves the airspace where the military trains the majority of the nation’s F-16 fighter pilots. Another official supporter, the developer-backed Land Advisors Organization, also sees preservation as an advantage. CEO Greg Vogel says that nearby open space is a premium amenity that can ultimately add up to $150,000 to a home’s value. The tourism and hunting industries are also supporters. “Wildlife recreation in Arizona is more than a $5 billion industry,” says Kate Mackay, deputy director of the Arizona Wilderness Coalition.

As if the swirl of money, military and conservation couldn’t get any motlier, add another interest group to the project’s roster of advocates: Valley churches. Gorsegner says dozens of churches have joined the effort, generally viewing the preserved lands as a resource for people to enjoy positive activities and spiritual reflection.

“As we approach our Centennial for the state of Arizona, there’s all these economic and biological reasons to protect the landscape, but this is really part of our identity as a state,” Mackay says. “It’s part of who we are.”

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