Proposal a big step to preserve our open space

Spend a few weeks among the high-rise buildings in major cities back East, and the Valley's mountains and vistas are the first thing you notice upon arriving home.

We're fortunate to have wide, open spaces and sunlight beaming down most of the year. It's what makes us the envy of the nation and a tourism destination.

Arizona, for the most part, has done a good job of preserving the unique landscape that makes us what we are. Efforts to continue that preservation must be encouraged and supported. To spoil the state's natural beauty with acres of subdivisions is shortsighted.

Last week, a group of environmentalists, business leaders, developers and mayors announced a proposal to protect about 700,000 acres of public lands in the West Valley.

The concept of the Sonoran Desert Heritage Proposal is to allow future generations the same ecological, cultural and recreational opportunities that we enjoy. It also will benefit Luke Air Force Base and the Barry M. Goldwater Range near Ajo by keeping encroachment at bay.

The area in the proposal stretches from a far northwest portion of Maricopa County to lands west of the White Tanks and southeast of Estrella Mountain Regional Park in the Southwest Valley. Public lands in the targeted area are managed by Bureau of Land Management. The proposal doesn't affect private-property owners and is embraced by developers who already have plans to build on nearby land west of the White Tanks.

The West Valley will be an attractive area for growth when the economy fully recovers. It makes sense to work now to protect what could become an exclusive destination similar to north Scottsdale.

Area leaders see the benefit of setting aside natural parks. Coalition members include the mayors of Goodyear, Peoria, Buckeye and Surprise, business leaders, community leaders and others.

"We need to provide a legacy of open public lands," Buckeye Mayor Jackie Meck said. "Once the land is developed, we can't get it back, and we know the good Lord isn't making any more land."

The effort also has the verbal support of the area's two West Valley congressional delegates, Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., and Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz. Their support is critical because the conservation initiative needs congressional approval for differing levels of protection, including making some land wilderness, some national-conservation areas and some special-management areas.

Unfortunately, neither representative said he is willing to take the lead to sponsor the required legislation. We hope one or both reconsider.

Protecting the public lands ensures the viability of military facilities and fosters economic development through tourism opportunities. But, most importantly, "it preserves the natural, cultural and recreational resources of the land and protects important wildlife habitat and migration corridors," said Matt Skroch, executive director of the Arizona Wilderness Coalition.
The open space is home to varied plants and wildlife, including bighorn sheep, mountain lions, mule deer, Gila monsters, Sonoran Desert tortoises and 350 species of birds.

Every effort should be made to preserve the West Valley's open space for future generations. We need our representatives in Washington to show leadership on this issue.

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