Small Steps for Preservation

Arizona activists and Rep. Raúl Grijalva look to set up the state's first new wilderness area in 15 years

America's wilderness movement has had a lot of the wind knocked out of its sails lately. But in Arizona, grassroots groups and Rep. Raúl Grijalva are making headway with a small-scale proposal: wilderness designation for 84,000 acres of the Tumacacori Highlands in Southern Arizona, 7,500 of them tacked onto the existing Pajarita Wilderness.

"We want to make this a model for how to operate in the future," says Don Hoffman, executive director of the Arizona Wilderness Coalition, "looking at small, individual opportunities rather than huge, statewide bills."

Grijalva, the Democratic freshman congressman of Arizona's 7th District, proposed the Tumacacori Wilderness in January; it would be the state's first new wilderness area in nearly 15 years.

"Some of my colleagues have never seen a place they wouldn't drill," says Grijalva, the son of a Mexican cowboy, whose environmental voting record last year earned him a 100 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters.

A rugged land of lichen-draped cliffs and grassy oak-dotted hills, the Tumacacori Highlands sit in the Coronado National Forest along the Mexican border. The closest settlements are Tubac and Arivaca, high-desert towns sustained largely by tourism and retirees. Nine ranchers graze cows in the Tumacacori, and the endangered jaguar occasionally haunts these arid canyons.

The Friends of the Tumacacori, part of the Tucson-based Sky Island Alliance, had bided its time for years, waiting for the right moment to seek permanent protection for the Highlands, says Matt Skroch, field program director for Sky Island Alliance. That moment arrived in 2003, when both the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management in Arizona updated their land-use plans, providing an opportunity to examine lands for formal wilderness designation. Seeing its chance, the Arizona Wilderness Coalition, an umbrella group that includes the Sky Island Alliance, went looking for areas that were not only scenic and roadless but that were also in the turf of wilderness-friendly politicians.

"We took the wilderness inventory and displayed it by congressional district instead of by eco-region," says Hoffman. The district around the Tumacacori Highlands, the largest unprotected roadless area in the state, happened to be Grijalva's.

Once they'd gotten political backing, the Tumacacori's boosters moved on to the public. They built support by presenting the proposal to "everyone from the Lions Club to the Rotary Club," says Skroch. He notes that ranchers, hikers and hunters have all had their say about the proposed wilderness boundaries, drawing them so that 20 existing dirt access roads would remain open.

But some local miners and ranchers still disagree with the proposal.

"It would make our already-hard job as ranchers much harder," says rancher Edith Lowell. "Instead of one day in a pickup, it'll take us five days of horse-packing to haul in fence materials and salt."

Also, the Tucson Electric Power Company wants to build a $70 million, 345-kilovolt transmission line across almost 30 miles of the Tumacacori Highlands, to improve reliability for the Nogales area and connect the U.S. and Mexican grids. While critics claim that a smaller, cheaper 115-kilovolt line would be more than enough to serve Nogales' needs, the Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates public utilities, recommended the larger line to allow for future growth.

"We'll take whatever action is necessary to get that line built," says Joe Salkowski, spokesman for Tucson Electric Power. Wilderness supporters oppose the power line, but say that if it does garner the necessary federal and state permits--which seems likely--they'll adjust the wilderness boundaries accordingly.

There's still some hard work ahead: Grijalva has delayed introducing the Tumacacori bill until this fall to drum up more support, starting with Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano and local governments. He's also hoping to enlist Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe, whose district encompasses the southeast corner of the state, and other congressmen as co-sponsors, and to get support from Arizona's senators.

Arizona wilderness activists think the chances of the bill passing Congress are good--and they're already setting their sights on more like it.

"We'll look for more opportunities where we have local and political support," says Hoffman. In Grijalva's district alone, he adds, his group has identified 680,000 acres of potential wilderness.

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