700,000-acre conservation plan would preserve 'legacy of Arizona'

About 700,000 acres of public land near Phoenix -- one of the West's fastest-growing cities -- would receive additional protection under a broadly supported proposal unveiled by environmental groups yesterday.

The initiative, presented at a press conference in Phoenix, calls for establishing three types of protected lands in the area. All are found within Bureau of Land Management lands in Maricopa County, home to more than 4 million people.

The proposal conserves natural and cultural resources and protects key wildlife corridors while allowing for renewable energy development and recreation, proponents said.

"This endeavor is about preserving the history, the heritage, and the legacy of Arizona," said Marshall Trimble, Arizona's state historian.

The proposal calls for establishing two new national conservation areas, two special management areas, and 17 wilderness units, some of which would be expansions of existing wilderness.

The Sonoran Desert Heritage Campaign seeks to significantly expand protections for public land surrounding the Phoenix metro area, including an addition to the Eagletail Mountains Wilderness (above). Photo courtesy of Bureau of Land Management.

The lands, which form a rough crescent in an area known as the West Valley, would protect the unique Sonoran Desert ecosystem and wildlife corridors used by bighorn sheep, mountain lions, mule deer and other species, supporters said. And by protecting open space, the initiative would also preserve flight training airspace and corridors between Luke Air Force Base and the Barry M. Goldwater Range to the south.

"It's very easy for us to support this project because it's supporting the mission of the base," said Ron Sites, executive director and president of Fighter Country Partnership, an organization that advocates on behalf of the military personnel based at Luke Air Force Base. The proposal protects the air space the base and other installations need to continue their missions, he added.

The proposal also has the blessing of city and county officials, developers, conservationists, military representatives, recreationists and the faith community, and the groups will gather further input from the public over the next few months before taking the proposal to Congress, said Mike Quigley, Arizona wildlands campaign coordinator for the Wilderness Society.

The diverse base of support reflects a unified desire to protect the scenery and recreational opportunities that draw so many people to the region, he said.

"It's a beautiful landscape," he said. "Arizona in the past decade or two has been rapidly growing in population and infrastructure, and I think people who live here have seen the development of open space, and I think that might be a motivator of people protecting this."

Maricopa County's population grew by about 30 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to census figures.

Larry K. Yount of LKY Development Company Inc., said the initiative is a selling point for the town of Belmont's 20,000-acre master planned community near the Belmont Mountains, which would be surrounded by the Sonoran Desert Heritage proposed wilderness area.

"We couldn't be more pleased with this proposal, as it gives added natural value to why prospective buyers want to live in western Maricopa County," he said.

According to recent polls, between 60 and 80 percent of residents support protecting open space in the area, Quigley said.

The initiative would not conflict with proposed solar projects in western Maricopa County because those sites are outside its boundaries, he added.

Dennis Godfrey, a spokesman for BLM's Arizona state office in Phoenix, said the agency is aware of the initiative but cannot take an official position on it until it goes before Congress.

"This seems to be kind of a broad-based grass-roots thing, and we certainly support that," he said. "But in terms of the specific proposal, my understanding is there's not a bill yet, so we're not in a position to comment."

The proposal has the support of Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.). But Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), whose district also includes some of the lands, has yet to endorse it, although he has said he is open to the plan. "We're optimistic we'll gain their full support for legislation," Quigley said.

The groups hope to see a bill introduced in Congress by next year.

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