Major Conservation Plan Unveiled to Preserve the Essence of Arizona

May 25, 2011

Initiative will add economic value to western Maricopa County communities

PHOENIX – A broad coalition of communities, organizations, developers, military interests and citizens today unveil a proposal to conserve and protect additional public lands in western Maricopa County. Called the Sonoran Desert Heritage Proposal, the conservation initiative requires action and approval by Congress.

“This endeavor is about preserving the history, the heritage, and the legacy of Arizona,” says Marshall Trimble, Official Arizona State Historian. “For me, in anticipation of our state’s centennial next year, there is no higher calling.”

The public lands encompassed by the proposal are primarily in western Maricopa County, and form a rough crescent shape from the northern to the southern portions of the county. All of the lands envisioned in the proposal are west of the White Tank Mountains, and are public lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). There are no private lands included in the proposal.

“The Sonoran Desert Heritage Proposal envisions a network of protected public lands that will ensure the viability of nearby military facilities, foster economic development through enhanced tourism opportunities, and consider future renewable energy development for these lands,” says Matt Skroch, executive director of the Arizona Wilderness Coalition. “Most importantly, it preserves the natural, cultural, and recreational resources of the land and protects important wildlife habitat and migration corridors.”

Considering Current and Future Residents by Preserving Open Space

Much of the area identified in the Sonoran Desert Heritage Proposal can be found within a short driving distance of Greater Phoenix. It is the area’s proximity to the West Valley’s growing urban center that creates the need to manage the impact of residents and tourists on wildlife and habitat of this iconic Arizona landscape.

“We need to provide a legacy of open public lands,” says Mayor Jackie Meck, of the Town of Buckeye.  “I believe the Sonoran Desert Heritage plan is one of the answers.  Once the land is developed, we can’t get it back, and we know the good Lord isn’t making any more land.”
Larry K. Yount, a principal at LKY Development Company, Inc., noted that Belmont’s 20,000- acre master planned community near the Belmont Mountains would be surrounded by the Sonoran Desert Heritage proposed wilderness in this area.

“We couldn’t be more pleased with this proposal, as it gives added natural value to why prospective buyers want to live in western Maricopa County,” says Yount.

The proposal has been carefully crafted to balance growth with preservation of quality-of-life and the landscapes that make Arizona famous.

“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,” says Dave Richins, Director of the Sonoran Institute’s Sun Corridor Legacy Program.  “And, managing the landscape as a coordinated whole will help protect wildlife that migrate through many different BLM and military lands, as well as the rich historical and archaeological sites they contain.”

The proposal also accommodates the military installations in the area. The Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range and Luke Air Force Base, in particular, both need open space for flight training.

”We all know what kind of economic engine Luke Air Force Base is for Arizona’s economy. The lands proposed in the Sonoran Desert Heritage plan, combined with the current flight paths at the Base, show incredible overlap; it’s very easy for us to support this project because it’s supporting the mission of the Base,” says Ron Sites, executive director and president of Fighter Country Partnership. “Fighter Country Partnership supports the Sonoran Desert Heritage proposal because it protects the air space that Luke Air Force Base and other installations in Arizona need to continue their missions now and going forward.”  The Partnership is an advocacy organization supporting the men, women, families and mission of Luke Air Force Base.

An Opportunity to Preserve Land That Defines Arizona

The western Maricopa County region identified in the proposal includes rugged terrain that provides an escape for hikers, hunters, and outdoor enthusiasts of every kind. It is also home to a wealth of wildlife, from the bighorn sheep to the desert tortoise and the Gila monster, bobcat, and more than 300 species of native birds. 

"Landscape-scale habitat conservation is an important component of wildlife management,” says Tom Mackin, president of the Arizona Wildlife Federation. “The Arizona Wildlife Federation will continue to work to ensure that responsible wildlife management remains at the forefront of this proposal and is inclusive of management tools necessary for wildlife to continue to thrive in the Sonoran Desert.”

The land also bears a colorful history; prehistoric Hohokam people, Spanish explorers, U.S. Army expeditions, hard-riding cowboys, ranchers, and hard-rock miners all converged here across generations to shape the area’s rich cultural heritage.

“From prehistoric times to the present, this region has always been a significant travel corridor—a cultural crossroads,” says Andy Laurenzi, with the Center for Desert Archaeology in Tucson.

The public lands in the proposal also embrace an amazing variety of terrain: black basalt piles formed by ancient volcanic eruptions; desert basins thick with creosote and bright-green palo verde; jagged mountain ranges and sweeping cliffs along the banks of the Gila River. 

“This is some of the most unique geology in the country,” says Craig Weaver, who has been hiking in the Saddle Mountain area for more than 30 years. “There are a lot of great canyons that provide solitude and remote areas that are within 10-15 minutes from where you park your car. You can be quickly immersed into areas with spectacular scenery and solitude in just a short drive from Phoenix.”

Working Towards a Congressional Endorsement

Supporters of the proposal indicated that today’s announcement is an important first step in a public process to discuss the value of conserving our open spaces in western Maricopa County.

"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 and to craft this draft proposal," says Mike Quigley, Arizona representative for The Wilderness Society. "Now, we're casting a wider net and asking our fellow Arizonans to join us in this process. We want to refine the proposal to best preserve the heritage of the West Valley and to make this the best proposal it can be."

Supporters indicated that the goal is to develop a finished proposal before the end of the year. To become law, it will require legislation in Congress; supporters hope it will be considered in the 2012 session.

The proposal is supported by a diverse group of local communities, civic leaders, businesses, landowners, and organizations. For more information about the proposal, visit www.sonoranheritage.org.