Nod to the Nature-Friendly

According to a new book, Pima County makes the eco-grade

Gazing along the Santa Cruz River's parched banks, you can nearly see into the past--back to when Indians and settlers drew sustenance from its steady waters. But squint a bit, and you might just glimpse the future as well. While much of the once-verdant northern Santa Cruz is found only in history books, that's about to change; soon, river stretches through Tucson will become lush with newly planted mesquites and dense thickets of native shrubs.

This $90 million project is among a handful of waterway restorations under Pima County's Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. And such eco-ambitions are exactly what landed our county a coveted spot in Nature-Friendly Communities: Habitat Protection and Land Use Planning, a crisp new book examining 19 forward-thinking locales across the nation (Island Press, $29.95). In Nature, authors Christopher Duerksen and Cara Snyder detail efforts in progressive hotspots ranging from Colorado's Fort Collins and Larimer County--which have set aside 38,700 open-space acres over a decade--to Baltimore County, Md., busily eradicating invasive plants, reviving its own diminished streams and limiting growth. "We were looking for communities that were thinking outside of box," explains Snyder from her Colorado home. "They were communities that were willing to take their vision a step further."

These enclaves are also quick to note a new reality: Being nature friendly can offer what economists call a positive cost-to-benefit ratio. "They are communities that 'get it,'" says Duerksen, on the phone from Alaska. "They see that preservation pays." For one, governments find that leaving open space undeveloped is often cheaper than installing expensive new waterlines, sewer mains and roadways. For another, a growing number of homebuyers are demanding open space. In turn, those of quality-of-life issues are helping change the housing market, he says. "Every study has shown that shift."

And two leading quality-of-life factors? Wildlife habitat and open space.

That point isn't lost on builders. In the past, they were often forced to donate green belts for new developments, in exchange for zoning concessions from local officials. But today, developers are motivated to leave swaths of nature, because it makes good business sense. "Over the last three or four years, there's been a huge change in the development community in their attitudes towards growth and open space," says Roger Yohem, vice president of the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association. "The development community is embracing open space more and more.

"There are a lot of reasons for that--including regulations to set aside open space," he says. "But builders provide a service, and they respond to demand. And what we're seeing is that consumers want more space."

Tucson is also responding to that demand, with plans to start a conservation plan of its own. "Obviously, most of the jurisdictions in the region--Tucson being one of them--has realized the value of doing habitat conservation," says City Manager Mike Hein. "It's not only because the community cherishes open space and the connectivity. It's also a valuable asset for the community economically, for quality of life and quality of place."

That "quality of place" likewise plumps a tourist industry employing about 36,000 Pima County residents. In Nature-Friendly, the authors note that tourism is nation's largest economic force, with revenues topping $545 billion, and employing millions of people. "Often, protecting nature is an obvious good investment," they write. "Resort communities have known this for a long time. If you protect nature, more tourists will want to visit, stay longer and spend more."

Locally, no one tracks those numbers closer than Richard Vaughan, senior vice president of the Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Everyone (in the tourism industry) should have an interest in protecting and enhancing our natural environment," he says. "We all understand the importance of that."

Still, melding disparate economic and political forces into one workable plan is a tall order. In Pima County, it started with the stroke of a federal pen, when the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl was listed as endangered in 1997. "That was the hammer," says Carolyn Campbell, executive director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection. "With the pygmy owl listing, the county had to have some sort of response."

That response became the conservation plan, which started as a raucous, unwieldy parley of some 100 ranchers, builders, businessmen, residents and environmentalists. But initially, the very notion of a massive conservation program raised red flags, says Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckleberry. He's credited with bringing the plan to life--and shepherding it through endless battles. "We had many meetings with homebuilders and Realtors who said, 'You're going to place all land in the county off-limits to home building,'" Huckleberry recalls. "We said no, we're protecting the most sensitive land. We know that growth and development is going to occur. Therefore, let's do it in places that cause the least impacts from biological, historic and cultural perspectives."

Preservation took another huge leap last year, when county voters approved a $174 million bond for purchasing land that ranks among the region's most precious wildlife habitat. These sensitive areas are home to approximately 2,500 species of pollinators and 500 species of birds, in what ranks among the world's most diverse ecosystems. "Pima County is approaching open space on such a large scale," says Cara Snyder. "With its conservation plan, the county is considering the ecosystem as a whole."

Eventually, those acquisitions will include thousands of acres--and restoration of the once nature-rich Santa Cruz River. And that kind of vision is what sets certain communities apart, says Duerksen. "There are few of what I call 'shining cities on the hill,' and Pima County is one of them."