Facing the Future

In the development battle of man vs. nature, nature's literally getting killed. But are builders starting to finally see the light?

It's a contest that pits a billion-dollar-a-year industry and almost a million Pima County residents against a cadre of critters like Bambi, Thumper and related furred and feathered friends.

David and his slingshot may have gotten lucky once against a Goliath, but history may not be ripe to repeat itself. Oddsmakers say percentages are stacked so disproportionately in favor of Team Homo Sapiens that it could be an animal Armageddon in the battle for territorial rights between humans and wildlife in the burgeoning metro communities.

Business consultant John Strobeck estimates the demand for new residences in the Tucson area is approaching 7,000 homes a year. "The homebuilding industry is huge, the No. 1 economic contributor" to the Old Pueblo, he says.

More than a billion dollars per year goes into the local economy as a result of the construction of new homes.

"In 2003, the local home building industry contributed $3.3 million per day to our economy as the result of new home sales," says Ed Taczanowsky, of the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association. "Based on the principles of economic theory, home building makes up about 20 percent of the total economy in the metropolitan Tucson area."

While the construction industry has its share of wordsmiths and spin doctors, black bears, mountain lions, mule deer and their ilk can't boast about all the dollars they pump into the local economy. Who speaks for those who cannot speak for themselves to ensure they retain a fair share of valley floor and mountainside acreage, and avoid being pushed quite literally out onto the streets?

Wildlife has some eloquent spokespersons among the advocacy groups representing its interests:

· "Pima County is one of the fastest growing areas in the country, growing twice as fast as the national average. We lose one acre of our Sonoran Desert home every two hours to development--and as our desert is disappearing, so are the plants and animals that need it to survive." (Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection brochure)

· "Wildlife is facing serious threats almost everywhere. Magnificent species are at death's door. If they are not protected soon, they will be lost forever. These animals can be saved if greed and arrogance are subdued by compassion for life and common sense." (Center for Biological Diversity Web page)

"We can either be victims of change or we can plan for it, shape it and emerge stronger from it. The choice is ours." (Sonoran Institute mission statement)

Growth and development are not the only causes of habitat loss, of course. Continuing drought and another now-familiar dusty summer with its slew of lightning-caused and man-made wildfires continue to contribute. But few will deny the effect of the palatial estates ("pink fungus" in environmentalist-speak) that creep higher and higher up our limited mountainsides, or spread farther and farther from ever-expanding city and county boundaries. Onward and upward are the tacit passwords, and things with claws and fangs continue to be forced out as a result.

"We must, as the human species takes more space on this planet, approach exploitation of any fellow species with due caution and concern for its continued existence," writes researcher and wildlife biologist Harley Shaw in his book, Soul Among Lions. "We must question our relationship with these other species. Over-confidence that the Earth was designed for the sole benefit of humans is perhaps our greatest weakness."

There is no lock on the entry gate into Tucson, so the portal to paradise stays open for a steady parade of newcomers, even as the Old Pueblo's metro population races toward the million mark. In fact, the "build it and they will come" mantra continues for the several hundred members of SAHBA, who represent building trades for single-family homes, non-union-built housing, in Pima, Cochise and Santa Cruz counties. The source of the steady housing growth is simple: People like this place.

"The retiree market makes up about 30 percent of the new construction market," says associate member Strobeck. "Depending on the availability of land, home building will be viable for at least the next decade in Tucson."

According to the Animal Defense League of Arizona's Web page, human population in the state is now well more than 5 million. While Census Bureau figures indicate Tucson grew above average national growth (4.3 percent from 2000-2003), Oro Valley expanded by 15.7 percent; Sahuarita grew 17.4 percent, and the former farming town of Marana bloomed an awesome 50 percent (and that was before news that nearly 2,000 more new homes would be built on 619 acres of vacant land just west of Marana's current building projects).

Despite the growth, attitudes about habitat preservation may be changing among developers. Central California transplant Taczanowsky, the recently named executive vice president of the 50-year-old SAHBA group, says, "Builders don't create the need. That's already here. But there is a new day, a new attitude, and a new era in our association. We realize that part of the charm of this area is the desert we live in, so we're trying to do beneficial things to help wildlife. We don't just say no anymore, opposing everything. We're trying to have an open dialogue with all segments of the society, because we want to be part of the solution."

Says Taczanowsky's assistant, Roger Yohem: "It's subtle, but a change is being implemented. Controversy and conflict are two things we're trying to get away from. We want to get deeper into the issues and be more proactive in helping to find their solution."

It's about time, according to spokespersons for several ecology-minded organizations.

"Pima County has grown by more than 26 percent in less than 15 years and, over the next two decades, an annual growth rate of 2.2 percent is projected--more than 400,000 new residents," says Nina Chambers, of the Sonoran Institute. "By guiding this inevitable new growth to areas that can support the development, pressure on the environmentally sensitive areas will be lessened. Studies show that truly savvy communities realize their environment can be an economic asset if neighborhoods are well-designed, homes are affordable, and natural amenities, including wildlife, are present."

Some of that is already happening. Mountain-to-mountain annexation, which would tend to put urban areas within incorporated cities, is a 30-year-old concept that has been recently resurrected. Other signs of change include the fact that one-third of the most recent Marana residential development deal will be a set-aside for open space to include a mesquite grove bordering state land and the biologically rich Brawley Wash. Also reported was another purchase made as a result of the 2004 open-space bond issue: After scooping up 700 acres of Sweetwater Preserve property in the Tucson Mountain foothills, the county has agreed to buy nearly 7,000 acres of ranchland in the Redington Pass, a $1.9 million deal that includes another 35,000 acres of state and federal land. If this property transaction were eventually put together with adjoining state/federal land, it could become an 80,000-acre park parcel west of the Catalina Mountains near Oro Valley.

So, in spite of recurrent gloom-and-doom advisories, some experienced defenders of the desert and its denizens say that if we act now, and act wisely, there is still time to intelligently use remaining habitat and implement positive changes for the future.

"It's not too late to pull it off," says Carolyn Campbell, executive director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection. "Even though we've got development moving out further and further, pretty much to the edge of some great remaining desert and forest habitat, there are still some really large undisturbed landscapes that provide wildlife habitat. I think humans and animals can still live together in Southern Arizona."

That's true--to a certain extent--according to ecologist Daniel Patterson of the Center for Biological Diversity, but he cautions: "Growth continues to accelerate and the spread of the urbanized boundary is happening at a faster rate than the actual rate of the population expansion. Our cities are actually growing wider, as well as bigger, with a much bigger footprint disproportionate to population growth. I would suggest that not only are we increasing our population, we're using more land to do it, and the issues of wildland-urban interface will only increase in significance as more and more people move into the interface areas up against the Catalina, Rincon, Tucson and Santa Rita Mountains."

Campbell adds, "If we manage valley development properly and set aside open spaces, a multi-tiered strategy can work. More sensitive building in the biological core, allocation of more environmentally sensitive areas, purchase and set-aside of some of these properties, and some of the traditional solutions, like in-fill, can work.

"I get really nervous knowing that a couple hundred species of flora and fauna disappear each day. In our lifetime, we've seen a lot of large predator numbers diminished or the species extirpated, so we need to get real smart, real fast, going step-by-step to help us make intelligent decisions."

Wildlife can co-exist in areas with increasing population, according to the Sonoran Institute's Chambers, "if critical habitat is protected and people are educated about living with wildlife. Political powers-that-be should be encouraged to direct efforts to the conservation of wildlife habitat and movement corridors and at the same time plan growth that minimizes impacts on the land. Future development is not an 'us or them' scenario. Past mistakes and recent successes have shown that 'us and them' is the only way to assure both an economically secure and environmentally sustainable future."

Mountain lion biologist Lisa Haynes is admittedly so close to the forest she can hug the trees, but from her perspective--that of a "fingers in the fur" wildlife researcher--she notes, "What's at risk right now is the chance for much of the wildlife we know to be a continuing part of our world. While environmentalists, the governor and Game and Fish supporters all flail away at each other over Sabino Canyon mountain lions, bulldozers continue to scrape away valuable habitat. All of us who care about wildlife are outnumbered by the sheer volume of people moving into the valley and outgunned by developers, their lobbyists, and development-friendly governments. We have few resources and a small window of time before the chance is lost forever to keep this a very special place, both for humans and animals. If humans take it all, staking total claim to what used to be animal acreage, all that will be left will be small populations of wildlife stuck in isolated spots surrounded by an ocean of humanity--and ultimately those populations will blink out. The notion of people versus wildlife is a false choice. We can, and must, make room for both."

Naturalist, author, and self-proclaimed desert rat Charles Bowden has penned many bon mots concerning the desert, and how we treat it and its inhabitants. He has written, "We already know more than we will ever understand. We already understand more than we need to take action."

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