Defending the Desert; A groundbreaking coalition aims to preserve acres of wild Valley land and the plentiful wildlife, tourism

Phoenix Magazine
Kaila White
Sunday, January 1, 2012
Phoenix Magazine, January 2012
Cover of Phoenix Magazine, January 2012

Following a decade of massive and unprecedented growth, a
question emerges: How does one protect the pristine land that makes Arizona so
appealing? A broad coalition of Valley organizations has the answer: Designate
it as wilderness.
 

"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.
 

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.
 

Altogether, the proposal protects 750,000 acres - 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."