Heritage plan deserves support

Mix together the military, wildlife, petroglyphs, tourism, the desert and economic development . . . and you have one amazing idea.

It's called the Sonoran Desert Heritage Proposal, and if approved by Congress, it would protect about 750,000 acres of public land in western Maricopa County.

The area, which forms a crescent west of the White Tank Mountains and curving south of Interstate 10, is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. None of it is private. What it needs is an extra layer of protection and oversight, especially as urban development continues to expand in that direction. The proposal isn't a single project but an umbrella that would designate:

- Two new national conservation areas. The proposed Gila Bend Mountains National Conservation Area, for example, is home to bighorn sheep and includes 2 miles of basalt cliffs with prehistoric petroglyphs.

- Additional wilderness. Places like the purple-tinged Belmont Mountains, 50 miles west of Phoenix, show off the untamed desert and form important connections for wildlife migrations.

- Two special management areas, which allow a range of visitor and recreational development. They include the Hieroglyphic Mountains, with cliffs for climbing, camping spots, hidden canyons for hikers to discover and a motorized loop trail through the desert.

The Sonoran Desert Heritage Proposal has been a long time in the works, with input from a wide variety of stakeholders. The range of support is impressive: West Valley mayors, horse lovers, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, local churches and businesses, solar companies, developers and Luke Air Force Base. Luke is a major economic engine for the West Valley and the entire state. But urban development has been limiting the area where pilots can fly and jeopardizing the long-term viability of hte base.

Here's an effective tool for keeping flight corridors open and maintaining the connection with the Barry M. Goldwater Range. This is particularly important as the Air Force considers where to conduct training for the future F-35 fighter jets.

The proposed conservation designations would ensure that nothing incompatible is developed on the ground. The economics go beyond Luke. Developers recognize the value of protecting adjacent scenic landscape. Local officials and businesses understand that the desert is a tourism draw and part of their identity. Supporters are finishing a draft proposal, which should be ready as Congress ends its summer recess. With its economic and conservation power, the Sonoran Desert Heritage Proposal deserves bipartisan support from Arizona's delegation, especially the two representatives whose districts span the area: Republican Trent Franks and Democrat Raúl Grijalva.

With Arizona's centennial around the corner in 2012, what could be a better birthday gift than conserving these iconic places?

See the proposal at sonoranheritage.org.

Read more: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/opinions/articles/2011/08/21/20110821heritage-proposal-support.html#ixzz1VmgV5qbG

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