Living with the Desert

Can we learn to love this landscape without killing it? Here's how one Arizona community found a way

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MICHAEL R. STOKLOS FOR TIME

DESERTED NO MORE: Strip malls like this one on Highway 77 in Catalina, Ariz., are blooming in the Southwest

A bobcat regularly saunters up the arroyo leading to Paul and Carolyn Zeiger's desert property in Pima County, Ariz., and leaps onto the flat roof of their adobe-style house. As long as their pet terrier, Stella, is inside, they don't worry much. "The bobcat jumps around up there and takes care of the mice," says Carolyn, 61, a clinical psychologist from Boulder, Colo. The Zeigers also get the occasional rattlesnake on their porch, and in the summer they have to stay indoors to avoid the midday heat. But despite those inconveniences--and in part because of them--they have developed a deep love of the desert in the five years since they moved here. Twenty miles from Tucson, their house looks out on a plain of saguaro cacti stretching to the Rincon Mountains. At night the stars shine brightly without competition from human lighting. Paul, 68, a semiretired software developer, gets all the hiking and bike riding he wants, and Carolyn attends lectures to learn how to grow desert plants in their yard. "You have to learn to adjust in the desert," says Carolyn.

It's an adjustment a lot of folks have been making of late. Since 1950, the population of Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada has increased from 1.6 million to 10 million as Americans discover the desert's clean air, warm weather, open spaces and relatively affordable housing. But without zoning codes to restrict it, much of that growth has been distressingly haphazard. By the time the Zeigers began looking for a retirement home in the 1990s, what they found was a lot of strip malls, golf clubs and sprawling subdivisions decorated here and there with cactus plants. They were horrified. "We didn't want to move to a place where they are just screwing up the desert again," says Carolyn.

One exception, they discovered, was Pima County, which covers 9,186 sq. mi. of southern Arizona, including the city of Tucson. Pima has developed a conservation plan that permits growth while protecting the desert environment--a plan that has become a template for communities across the Southwest. "The old debate about whether growth is good or bad is irrelevant," says Chuck Huckelberry, Pima County administrator. "We have been growing for 50 years [in Tucson]. But we control where our growth occurs so it maximizes benefits and minimizes impacts."

There's a lot of growth to control. From 1990 to 2003, Arizona's population increased 53%, making it the second fastest growing state in the nation, after Nevada (another desert state, whose population grew 87% in the same period). Developers working in the U.S.'s four major deserts--California's Mojave, Arizona's Sonoran, Texas and New Mexico's Chihuahuan and Nevada and Utah's Great Basin--can't build houses fast enough. In the town of La Quinta, Calif., southeast of Palm Springs, property prices jumped 48% last year, and new-home buyers have to go on waiting lists or hope to win a developer's lottery for the right to buy a small patch of desert.

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