Guest Commentary

When it comes to the Catalinas, financial interests sadly take precedence over the interests of nature

Have you been up Mount Lemmon lately?

I drove up recently to assess its drastically accelerated evolution of the last few summers. At milepost 5, I breezed past the fee station, as I always do.

MEMO TO MOUNT LEMMON VISITORS: The fee that you are "required" to pay at the cute little kiosk is not a requirement at all. It is a demonstration program, designed to determine whether you, as a taxpayer, are foolish enough to pay $5 to visit public land, while ranchers and timber companies steal the Forest Service blind, and the Bush administration starves the agency's budget. By paying, you are in fact demonstrating your acquiescence to this breach of public trust.

And I don't wanna hear any crap about all the toilet paper the fees buy. Take your own damn TP--it'll be cheaper and far more comfortable than the sandpaper they stock in those outhouses.

Anyway, my pile of citations--excuse me, "Notices of Opportunity to Pay," as they're officially called (you don't have to pay these either)--notwithstanding, I have enjoyed the Santa Catalina Mountains many times during the past 15 years. This time, when I reached the road destruction--excuse me, "construction," as it's officially called--near Windy Point, I was shocked.

If you've been up there, you know the part of the road I'm talking about. I think it's the most beautiful and interesting part of the mountain: gnarled manzanita and oak and Easter Island-looking rock formations on one hand, and what seems like The Edge of the World on the other. It's the scary part, the part that actually feels like a mountain road--dangerous, curvy and nerve-wracking, exactly the way a mountain road should be.

In the immortal words of Peter Sellers, "Not any murr." The vegetation was obliterated in the fire, and now hardhats and dozers are hard at work taking what's left of the mountain out of the road, eating away at the majestic rocks like nuclear-tipped termites. Entire formations have already disappeared, and judging from the painted hash marks I saw along the road, more are doomed.

For what? Ostensibly, it's all about "safety"--as it's officially called--but the results will be consistent with all road projects: more traffic attempting to drive faster.

At the top of the hill, this activity is met with mixed response. In Summerhaven, where shiny new log cabins are now clearly visible through the fried forest, some worry about possible Disneyfication. Sure, current redevelopment plans are billed as a compromise among the desires of homeowners (halcyonic mountain getaway), business owners (cash cow full of tourons) and visitors (plenty of kitsch and automobile-accessible pseudo-nature, along with lots of toilet paper). But what about the mountain?

Decision-making in the Catalinas seems to be all about money and what's good for humans, and not at all about what's good for the mountain. Uppity lions and bears becoming acclimated to careless handouts? Shoot 'em or send 'em to an animal prison. To humans, it's a lawsuit waiting to happen. To the critters, it's the death penalty, or a life sentence.

Fire threat? Cut down all the commercially viable timber elsewhere, but don't fund thinning and prescribed burns around vulnerable communities; the denizens of Shangri-La will just complain bitterly about the smoke and mess, anyway. And certainly don't ask humans to take responsibility for their own safety.

A little-noticed report on last summer's Aspen Fire--prepared by the Forest Service's resident expert on wildland-urban interface burns--concluded that the wildfire in Summerhaven "largely spread as a surface fire, not as a high intensity crown fire." The report also states that a surface fire will not ignite a home unless it comes within 10-15 feet of it.

Translation? Even after the Bullock fire scare of the previous summer, many property owners couldn't be bothered to rake the impending fuel away from their precious castles.

But here's the clincher: Where crown fire was evident, the report shows that it was the burning buildings that caused it! In some areas, the fire spread from "structure to tree canopy to structure."

Judging from how the mountain has already begun to recover from the fires, Mother Nature teaches us that we should not fear to destroy what is in order to make what shall be. Judging from the mismanagement of the Catalinas, however, it appears we humans simply lack good judgment in terms of what to destroy and how, and what to make in its place.

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