Coalition seeks to preserve Sonoran Desert

A coalition of environmentalists, business leaders, developers and mayors announced a proposal Wednesday to protect roughly 700,000 acres of public lands in the West Valley.

The group wants to preserve for future generations the ecology, cultural heritage and recreational opportunities in the Sonoran Desert west of Phoenix.

The public lands, which are managed by the Bureau of Land Management, form a rough crescent stretching from the northwest edge of the Maricopa County to lands west of the White Tank Mountains and southeast of Estrella Mountain Regional Park.

The proposal would protect the Sonoran Desert environment, its open space, the varied plants and wildlife and the corridors used by wildlife, including bighorn sheep, mountain lions, mule deer, Gila monsters, Sonoran Desert tortoises and 350 species of birds.

Equally important, organizers said, is the preservation of open space beneath flight corridors used by Luke Air Force Base and other military installations that fly to the Barry M. Goldwater Range west of Ajo.

Matt Skroch, executive director of the Arizona Wilderness Coalition, said the main objective is to maintain a balance of economic development, growth and environment in one of the state's fastest-growing regions.

"Because of the vast landscape of public land . . . real discussion began about how to shape the destiny of parks and natural areas to complement the incredible growth," Skroch said.

Protecting open space means millions of recreational dollars to the state, group members say.

They say that outdoor recreation supports more than 15,000 jobs in the state, and hunting and fishing generate more than $1.3 billion. All outdoor-related recreation in Arizona, such as bird-watching, sightseeing and hiking, produces nearly $5 billion annually in services and retail sales across the state.

And Luke Air Force Base has 7,000 employees and an annual financial impact to the state of more than $2.1 billion annually.

Mike Quigley, Arizona's representative for the Wilderness Society, said the group wants to preserve the heritage of the West Valley.

"Our outreach efforts so far have included discussions with developers, business interests, cities and towns in the West Valley, utilities, environmental-conservation organizations, landowners and others to identify important public lands," Quigley said. "Now, we're casting a wider net and asking our fellow Arizonans to join us in this process."

The plan requires congressional approval, which the group hopes to obtain by 2012. The conservation initiative must have Congress designate the lands as three categories that offer differing levels of protection to specific areas, such as making some land wilderness, some national-conservation areas and some special-management areas.

Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., who represents part of the area, said he is "very open" to the plan.

"One of the more important benefits would be furthering the mission of Luke Air Force Base," said Franks, adding that the proposal should be drawn up in a way that doesn't hurt plans for the proposed Interstate 11, which would be a critical part of the Canamex Corridor, a highway and rail route that would connect Mexico, the U.S. and Canada. I-11 would connect I-10 to U.S. 93 near Wickenburg.

However, he wouldn't commit to sponsoring a bill.

Adam Sarvana, communications director for Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., whose district includes some of the land, said the congressman supports the concept but won't take the lead on the legislation.

Dennis Godfrey, a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management, said the bureau can't comment on the proposal until there is specific legislation.

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