Living with the Desert

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


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

    (2 of 4)

    What those developers are only starting to realize is that deserts are not what they appear to be. Arid, sparsely vegetated and seemingly inhospitable, they look like nature's waste lots, ripe for occupation and improvement. Even the word desert implies "unoccupied." But despite the shortage of water and wide temperature fluctuations, deserts are the host of a wide variety of species, each of which has adapted in its way to life in a desert ecosystem. Couch's spadefoot toads can live underground for much of their lives, awaiting some moisture before they come up and breed. Saguaro cacti are able to suck up a ton of water from one rain shower and then do without more rain for a year. Sidewinder rattlesnakes move across dunes in a unique S-shaped motion that minimizes contact with the scorching sand.

    But living on the extremes of viability makes desert creatures surprisingly sensitive to disturbance. Golf courses and suburban lawns soak up sparse groundwater, and indigenous species suffer from the earthmovers, off-road vehicles and domestic pets that new arrivals bring. In California's Coachella Valley in the Mojave Desert, each of the 110 golf courses uses some 750,000 gallons of water a day. "Deserts have fragile ecosystems, and they are being threatened by this development," says William Presch, director of the desert-studies program at California State University at Fullerton. "If we don't understand how the desert environment works, we will lose it."

    Once a desert landscape has been despoiled, it recovers slowly, if at all. "Where you have rain, things grow back in 20 or 30 years. In the desert Southwest, it takes centuries," says Huckelberry, an engineer by training. Pima County, he is quick to point out, is not antigrowth--far from it. Every year for the past decade, the population has grown by 15,000 souls and covered 4,500 acres of desert in new housing. The newspapers are flush with property advertisements, the roads out of town dotted with signs for new developments with names like Coyote Creek and Saguaro Buttes. The median single-family-home price in 2004 was $176,500, up 14% from the year before. County planners estimate that the population, now at 943,795, will top 1.6 million by 2050.

    But in 1997 the county suddenly found itself paralyzed by a bird, the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, which was listed as an endangered species after a survey found just 12 of them left in the state. The owl, which weighs 2.5 oz. and nests in cavities in saguaro cacti, had established a small population in prime development land northwest of Tucson. After the bird's listing, house building in the area came to a halt.

    Huckelberry decided to use the owl's plight as the impetus to craft a comprehensive conservation plan. He assembled an unlikely coalition of developers, Realtors, ranchers and environmentalists and drew up a blueprint that would protect not just the pygmy owl but a total of 55 threatened species--while leaving room for housing development in nonsensitive desert regions. "We believed it was better to be at one table rather than have a huge fight," says Bill Arnold, one of the county's biggest Realtors. "Everyone was a winner in the end."

    1. 1
    2. 2
    3. 3
    4. 4