Sweetwater in the Foothills, located west of Interstate 10 at the base of the Tucson Mountains, recently became the state's first and only certified Community Wildlife Habitat. The certification, awarded by the National Wildlife Federation, recognizes communities that landscape with native plants in a way that offers wildlife food, shelter, water and a place to raise young.
Sweetwater in the Foothills is one of just 23 certified communities in the country.
"We thought this would help us retain the part of the neighborhood we really love," said Debbie Harrison, team lead for the Sweetwater in the Foothills Community Wildlife Habitat Project. "This neighborhood is pretty natural."
The Community Wildlife Habitat program sprang from the National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Wildlife Habitat program, which has allowed individuals to register their personal backyards as wildlife habitats since 1973.
To become a certified community, a neighborhood has to earn points in a variety of areas. Sweetwater in the Foothills reached its certification goal by registering 38 of the community's 414 homes' yards and installing two community gardens of native plants.
The neighborhood was also featured on two episodes of the Animal Planet's Backyard Habitat, which profiles habitat yards across the country.
Sweetwater in the Foothills resident Ellen Fountain has had a recognized backyard habitat for more than 20 years in Tucson. Her previous home was registered, and she was the first to certify her yard in Sweetwater in the Foothills after moving to the gated community in 2001.
Harrison decided to certify her own yard after seeing a sign at Fountain's house announcing her status, and the community project grew from there.
For most Sweetwater in the Foothills residents, transforming their yards to meet certification standards was not overly difficult, since the homeowners' association already has regulations in place to encourage landscaping with low-water-use native plants, Harrison said.
But Harrison and others added plants, water features and rock-shelter areas to attract more wildlife. Harrison said she and her husband can now sit at the window and watch a variety of birds, butterflies, rabbits, lizards and other critters visit their backyard to snack on plants.
Naturally, the wildlife traffic is not limited to the cute and fuzzy. The dense desert landscape that still exists on the community's edges are also a draw for coyotes, bobcats, javelina and rattlesnakes, but Harrison said she enjoys seeing the predators as much as the prey.
Not all residents are on board with a plan that aims to bring more wildlife into the neighborhood, and some neighbors have had their small dogs snatched from their yards by coyotes, Harrison said.
However, Harrison said it's important to remember: "This (community) wasn't here at all 10 years ago, and (the animals) were."
An Arizona Cancer Center research specialist and volunteer ranger at Saguaro National Park West, Harrison strongly discourages residents from feeding wildlife with anything other than natural vegetation. The idea is not to make animals dependent on handouts, but to supply them with natural food and shelter sources that are being taken as the desert is bladed for commercial and residential development.
Ironically, Sweetwater in the Foothills itself is a master-planned community in the middle of relatively rural desert, and not everyone welcomed the subdivision when development began almost 10 years ago.
"The Tucson Mountains Association was very opposed to this development, because most of the property around us is very rural, and a lot of the people have been in this area since the '30s or '40s," said Fountain, who once belonged to the association. "They were not comfortable with a dense housing development."
A compromise was reached when developers agreed to plan three-acre lots at the community's outskirts to provide a natural desert buffer between the new and existing homes, said Fountain, who lives on one of the large lots.
Today, the community's layout and location keeps it relatively contained and hidden from main streets, and many residents who live there say they are making it a priority to protect what desert is left.
"I think it's absolutely wonderful that enough people in here are like-minded and that we could do this," Fountain said. "There are people on one end who say man has the right to do anything we want to the Earth, because we're the supreme beings, and we don't have to share with anybody. Then on the other end, there are people who say every bit of life on Earth is sacred, and we all have rights to what's here."
John Gale, regional representative from the National Wildlife Federation, said there is increasing interest in all parts of the country to help preserve wildlife through certifying backyards, communities and even entire towns as wildlife habitats.
Sweetwater in the Foothills received official recognition at a ceremony April 21. Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson congratulated the community and said she plans to tell her fellow supervisors about the residents' efforts and suggest that new developments be urged to follow in their footsteps.
In the meantime, the project has already begun to spread beyond the subdivision's immediate boundaries. Sweetwater resident Geri Ashworth is spearheading efforts at nearby Robins Elementary School to create a certified Schoolyard Habitat, with two native plant gardens where students can learn about desert plants and wildlife.
"I think it's important to support the environment that we live in and be tolerant to our animal friends, like we would other cultures, because they are a culture," Ashworth said.
For Sweetwater in the Foothills, efforts don't end with the community's certification. Harrison said she will continue working to get more yards in the community registered.
"Thank God there's still some wildlife where you can see it," she said. "I want to keep it that way."