Why is Conservation of Wild Places Important?

Days are long gone when America was mostly wilderness, when the "settled" places were small and surrounded by wild, when people feared the trolls and sprites they believed inhabited wild places. Even Arizona, so late to statehood, has seen its wild places shrink as wave after wave of transplants have come from the East, Midwest, and California.

Today, settled places sprawl across maps and America has been largely converted -- to subdivisions, parking lots, highways, shopping malls, and amusement areas. Arizona is one of the fastest changing places in the United States; the West Valley of Maricopa County currently hosts 21% of Phoenix’s population, which will explode to 34% by 2030 as a key segment of one of the nation’s fastest growing regions. Today, it is wild lands—not humanity—that is surrounded and diminishing. But luckily, across many different sectors of society, we are waking up to the many ways wilderness, National Conservation Areas, and other public land designations benefit our lives.

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Conservation of wild, open spaces ensures the viability of Luke Air Force Base and its surrounding communities

HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter during Exercise Angel Thunder at Gila Bend; Courtesy Luke AFB

HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter during Exercise Angel
Thunder at Gila Bend; Courtesy Luke AFB

The Sonoran Desert Heritage proposal would benefit the military installations in the area. The Goldwater Air Force Range and Luke Air Force Base, in particular, both need open space for overflights and critical training operations. That need will intensify if Luke becomes home to the new F-35 fighter. As the U.S. Air Force’s largest fighter wing and the only active duty F-16 training base in the world, Luke Air Force Base plays a critical role in protecting America’s freedom and security. And with over 7,000 employees and a financial impact of over $2.1 billion annually, Luke Air Force Base is key to the state of Arizona’s economic viability. The Sonoran Desert Heritage proposal will also help planners manage growth around the base by providing a clearer blueprint for the future. Communities will be better equipped to develop economic strategies that take advantage of their proximity to scenic beauty, outdoor fun, and cultural education on these public lands.

Conserving wild places protects our wildlife

Mule deer

Mule deer are native to the Sonoran Desert and can be
found in many of the proposed units.

As intact habitat for magnificent creatures like desert bighorn sheep, mountain lions, Gila monsters, Sonoran Desert tortoise, mule deer, and myriad song birds, wilderness and other conservation designations preserve the important linkages between mountain ranges, desert washes, and water sources that wildlife need to survive. Roadless lands, in particular, allow wildlife to forage, reproduce, and raise their young without the noise and disturbance of humans and motorized equipment. Many studies have shown that elk, mule deer, and other wildlife avoid habitats within a 0.25 mile of roadways that receive substantial vehicle traffic. Road disturbance and motorized activity can be a major contributor to habitat fragmentation by dividing large landscapes into smaller patches and disrupting wildlife movement patterns across the broader landscape in which they roam. By linking key ranges like the Hummingbird Springs and others that provide habitat for desert bighorn sheep, mule deer, mountain lions, and other wildlife, the Sonoran Desert Heritage proposal facilitates wildlife connectivity throughout western Maricopa County using a variety of conservation designations.

Conservation supports our local and state economies

Photographer in natural area

Tourists from all over the world enjoy the unique
beauty of the Sonoran Desert;
Courtesy Arizona Wilderness Coalition

The Arizona Game and Fish Department cites that wildlife-related revenue in Arizona—from activities like hunting, photography, bird watching, hiking, and camping—regularly totals more than Arizona’s famed golf and baseball spring training revenues combined. It’s common sense to protect the places where tourists and residents can pursue these activities with friends and family, bringing much needed dollars to rural communities and supporting local business owners. According to the Arizona Game and Fish Department, watchable wildlife recreation also supports over 15,000 jobs in the state. More than $1.3 billion in revenue is brought into state coffers from hunting and fishing alone. All outdoor-related recreation in Arizona—including wildlife watching activities like bird-watching, sight-seeing, and hiking—produces almost $5 billion annually in services and retail sales across the state. Bird watchers, photographers, wildflower enthusiasts, archaeologists, and others flock to the places like Red Rock Canyon, and Sonoran Desert National Monument to experience Arizona’s natural beauty, ancient relics, and unique flora and fauna. Protecting and enhancing our public lands and the wildlife that rely on them through a variety of designations—like those in the Sonoran Desert Heritage proposal—safeguards the long-term economic vitality of Arizona.

Wild landscapes protect our water supplies

As functioning, intact ecosystems with filtration, runoff, and water sequestration, wilderness protects one of the most precious resources we have in the Sonoran Desert—water. Few people realize that the majority of drinking water sources for major metropolitan areas like Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, New York, and Phoenix originate in watersheds protected by wilderness designation. Much of the Phoenix metro area drinks water that at one time originated in the high reaches of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park wilderness, part of the Mount Baldy Wilderness and its watershed in eastern Arizona, and the Verde River watershed, which among other sources, absorbs runoff from Juniper Mesa Wilderness in the central part of the state.

Protected public lands provide hands-on learning for children

Young boy in meadow

Many of the proposed conservation areas offer easy
access for families to enjoy the desert, such as the
wildflower blooms at Saddle Mountain; © Scott Hulbert

As a natural classroom where we can learn how the world works, wild lands offer children the chance to experience living, breathing laboratories of nature, as untouched as they were more than 200 years ago. Teachers and parents can inspire the magic of hands-on learning by taking their children into the wild places closest to their own communities—and in western Maricopa County, some of our wildest lands are only 30 minutes from towns like Buckeye, Peoria, Surprise, and Litchfield Park. By connecting the remaining wild places left on our public lands, we give our children the chance to find natural quiet, pick wildflowers, listen to native birds, or watch a fox stalk its prey.



Wilderness preserves the rare experience of quiet backcountry hunting

Hunter with javelina

Hunting is a much-loved and traditional use of public lands
in the Sonoran Desert; © Jessica Lamberton

The wild, roadless areas of our public lands provide high quality wildlife habitat and offer the last, best opportunities for true backcountry hunting in Maricopa County. Rugged, unspoiled landscapes offer hunters the knowledge that, even in the 21st century, they can enjoy country that is close to what early trappers, Native Americans, and pioneers experienced. In 2006, the Arizona Department of Game and Fish released the results of a statewide survey of active hunters that indicated that disruption caused by off-road vehicles was among the top four “barriers to participating in hunting” in Arizona. In fact 54% of the respondents indicated that disruption caused by ORV use was a significant barrier to their participation in hunting. The Sonoran Desert Heritage proposal facilitates the connection of safe wildlife migration corridors for many of Arizona’s iconic wildlife, including desert bighorn sheep, mule deer, mountain lions, javelina, bobcats, gray fox, coyotes, and a variety of raptors and eagles—many of which survive only because of the existence of quiet, wilderness-quality habitat in the Cortez Peak, Sand Tank Mountains, and others.

Conservation of wild places offers us places for spiritual renewal

Hiker contemplates vista

Hikers pause to take in the vista from the Eagletail
Mountains Wilderness;
Courtesy Arizona Wilderness Coalition

Wild, quiet places nurture deep thought and spiritual awareness as we escape from the pressures of everyday life. In nature, we find opportunities for reflection and can more easily focus on core values, our sense of fulfillment, and the basic questions of human purpose that are easily obscured when our lives are surrounded by an overload of distractions. All around us, wild places declare the eternity and the omniscience of God; without these wild, open spaces, we lose a reminder of what Creation is like in its original condition. We discern the qualities of the Creator through the things which God has made. Wilderness areas and other lands in their most primitive state provide the best opportunity for solitude and spiritual reflection in the natural environment.



Protected landscapes nurture a human connection to Arizona’s heritage past


Relic remains of a 20th century homestead near the
Belmont Mountains; © Aleah Sato

Wild lands are places where young people learn to camp and fish, to hunt and absorb the outdoor skills and values that formed the backbone of people who once roamed this territory and settled Arizona. This kind of connection with our past, and the land that made it possible, is disappearing across America—especially in rapidly developing states like Arizona. Many of the areas proposed for National Conservation Area and wilderness designation in the Sonoran Heritage proposal look, feel, and function as they did more than 200 years ago—when Arizona was simply a territory waiting to be mapped. Long before the arrival of Spanish or American explorers, the Hohokam and Patayan peoples lived along the Gila River, maintaining trade relationships with native tribes as far away as the Pacific Coast. Significant archaeological sites—reminders of these early inhabitants—can be found throughout western Maricopa County and include Painted Rock, where black basalt rocks are covered with a haunting display of carvings.

A Pima ki, or primitive house

A Pima ki, or primitive house, used by the Pima people,
who lived throughout the proposal area;
Courtesy Library of Congress

The bluffs along the Gila River served as guideposts for generations of travelers. In 1774, the Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza led an expedition through this country on his way to California. Colonel Stephen Kearny and the famous Mormon Battalion traversed the same wild country during the Mexican-American War of the 1840s. Less than two decades later, the Butterfield Overland Stage line provided an early route to California across the harsh terrain. America’s western settlement drove successive waves of ranches, gold and silver mines, and hardscrabble communities, some now ghost towns, to take root on these wild lands. The essence of Arizona’s character—frontier independence and self-reliance—has been shaped by this dynamic landscape and is our state’s contribution to the greater spirit of American individualism. Preserving these pieces of our colorful past will benefit future generations.

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