Voice of the Desert

David Yetman is 15 years past his last summer on the Pima County Board of Supervisors--and even those made ill by the thought of a fourth Yetman term sing praises for his new gig as host of KUAT TV's acclaimed The Desert Speaks.

Yetman popped up on the Channel 6 show in 1994 and became its host three years ago. Yetman is also a tenured research scientist at the UA's Southwest Center. The son of a Methodist preacher, Yetman has doctorate in linguistic philosophy from the UA.

A Democrat, Yetman pioneered the environmentalists' hold on District 5 when he won election in 1976. He blazed the trail for his successors: Raul Grijalva, now a member of Congress, and Richard Elias.

No supervisor has ever matched Yetman in his intricate knowledge of the Sonoran Desert. He is the author of four books on cultures, plants and ecosystems in Mexico, and the co-author of two others.

We caught up with the happy political has-been at the Yetman family home in Sam Hughes.

Are you still Mr. Verbal Alacrity?

Well, one learns that television is a very different way of delivering a message from politics. Also, it is my personality. I've always felt that I had to say 37 different things at the same time and make sure every thought was reasonably complete.

Where ya been besides the western U.S.?

In 2001, we did three programs in Argentina. Last year, we did three programs in Bolivia. And this year, we've done three in Peru and one in Bolivia, so we're really all over the new world.

Where would you like to go?

Namibia, on the coast of West Africa. The Namib Desert ranges from almost as dry as the Atacoma in northern Chile, southern Peru, where it never rains ... and then you have a gradation of vegetation as you go inland, and by the time you're not very far in, you're getting into the very exotic. Excuse me; I shouldn't use the word "exotic" because it has it has other meanings, but (I am talking about) traditional African wildlife, and there is a very strong indigenous presence there, too. That appeals to me.

Back to new-world deserts.

The deserts of Peru are sensational. I was just in the Atacoma last month where it never rains.

You mean something less than an inch a year.

It literally never rains, although they do get dew.

When do you shoot the programs?

We try to get as much filming done in the first half of the year as possible, because the editing is time-consuming. We do the introductions here in my backyard. And those take, for each program, usually two or three hours to get it just right. Then, the editing, which I don't do because I'm not a sophisticated film person, is done by (videographer/director) Dan Duncan and (producer/director) Tom Kleespie, who are simply a dream to work with. We usually have 13 hours of filming for each half-hour segment.

Any red tape?

We try to work that out beforehand. We were in Bolivia in April filming at a pre-Inca site, and they didn't want us there because (we) hadn't paid a bribe. We fortunately had with us a Bolivian who was knowledgeable in this stuff and arranged for us to get the "paper signed."

Is the Joshua tree a tree?

Sure. I'm working on a book right now on great cacti-- the big, giant columnar cacti. One of the questions people often ask is, 'Are they trees?' And my answer is unequivocally yes ... because you can climb them. I shinnied up one enough to get off the ground. That is more difficult with cacti.

You grew up in Prescott. Will we see Yetman doing The Forest Speaks?

There are forests in the deserts. And one of the saddest things about the loss of the Catalinas is that the Santa Catalinas are our only true Sky Island in the Sonoran Desert. It is the only range that has mixed conifer--or had mixed conifer forest--completely surrounded by Sonoran Desert.

Has that been emotional for you?

Yes. It's been very hard to see. I suppose the consolation of it all is that it will be an ecological laboratory for the next 100 years.


I think, in general, that a permanent human presence on Mount Lemmon is a mistake.

How fragile is the Sonoran Desert?

The Sonoran Desert is going to survive because the rainfall is not going to increase dramatically until the Ice Age comes back. ... The turnaround from the inter-glacial to the glacial period may be as short as four years. But given its climatic permanence, it can and is being drastically changed in Mexico because of introduced grasses, just the same as here--but here, more than in Mexico, (because of) the effects of urbanization and suburbanization and the ongoing pumping of groundwater. The areas that are protected--and I certainly admire the county's efforts in the Sonoran Desert Protection Plan--give a permanence that is lacking in Mexico.

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