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

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    The Pima County board of supervisors ratified the plan, dubbed the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, and last year the county proposed a $174 million bond issue to buy up open land for conservation. The measure passed easily, with 65% voter approval. Under the plan, the county allows concentrated growth in designated areas while preserving swaths of open space in environmentally sensitive core areas in a large ring around Tucson. That open space preserves the characteristic desert vistas while providing corridors for wildlife to move around the edges of housing areas. Huckelberry aims to preserve 263,880 acres in that way.

    In addition to the plan, the county has adopted rules governing the exterior colors of new houses, the amount of light that can be given off at night and the amount of water that can be used for gardening. In the 260-unit Arizona Senior Academy, where the Zeigers chose to settle, grass lawns and water-thirsty plants like oleander are forbidden, there are no streetlights on the roads, and half the land is preserved as open space for wildlife habitat. The houses are built in clusters of four sharing a single driveway and auto court and are designed to be inconspicuous: all exterior walls must mimic the brown and ocher tones of desert soil.

    The Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan was written to conserve the region's biodiversity, but Huckelberry concedes that even the most careful planning cannot forestall all the threats that man poses to the desert. Domestic dogs and cats, for example, can wreak havoc on native species of birds and small mammals. One of the main reasons for the pygmy owl's decline was predation by house cats.

    An even more serious threat is posed by buffel grass, an invasive species that was originally imported from Kenya to feed cattle. Adapted to being trampled by elephants and capable of spreading widely with little water, buffel grass has migrated west from the rangelands of Texas, bringing a new threat, fire. To conserve water, most desert species in the Southwest grow far apart, making it hard for fires to spread. Buffel grass grows easily in dry soil, forming a carpet of dry, flammable stalks that burns very hot after a lightning strike and can engulf cacti, yucca, ocotillo and the paloverde trees. "None of the native plants have fire adaptation. If they burn, they die," says Tom Van Devender, a senior research scientist at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson. "If there is recurring fire, you get a conversion from desert to savannah grassland."

    But the most fundamental limitation to life in the desert is water, and no matter how sensitively houses are located aboveground, everyone is still drawing from the same precious supply of groundwater. In the long term, overuse of groundwater means slow death for desert plants, whose roots are unable to reach down far enough to sustain them. When plants die, animals run out of food and shelter--a process that is often noticed only after it's too late.

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