Filler Canyon Clash

Will Oro Valley Voters Rescue Honey Bee?
By Margaret Regan

WHEN YOU DRIVE north out of Tucson on the high Oracle Road, skirting around the western edge of the Catalina Mountains, you come upon the wide-open horizons of the Oro Valley.

But you don't see the glittering gold the place was so optimistically named for. Instead you see colors that are proving just as good as gold, at least for a handful of developers: the pinks and beiges of tract houses that are going up in all directions. Clotting up the ridgelines, perching along the Catalinas' low western foothills, spreading along the rolling valley floor, new cookie-cutter "Mission-style" houses suddenly are everywhere, as far as the eye can see.

Right in the thick of this rampant development, a half-mile west of Del Webb's densely built Sun City retirement community, and a quick jog east of UDC Homes' Sunset Ridge, now under construction, snakes lush Honey Bee Canyon.

Honey Bee is a five-mile-long arroyo that wends its way south out of the Tortolita Mountains; but, as luck would have it, the fragile, beautiful mile-long segment that has water running year-round lies within the boundaries of the huge Rancho Vistoso development in Oro Valley. Like Sabino Creek and Cienega Creek near Benson, Honey Bee is ranked by biologists as a Class 1 riparian habitat with a significant number of plant and animal species; these three water courses are the last remaining perennial water streams in Pima County.

It's the water, that rare thing in the desert, that's turned Honey Bee into a cause célèbre. It's the water that thrust this exquisite canyon into a protracted political battle over zoning and development that's already pitched a few politicians out of office. And it's the water and all it represents that will put the fate of Honey Bee before the voters this Tuesday, March 12.

Oro Valley citizens are going to the polls to vote on a bond issue that supporters believe just might be the last, best, if imperfect, hope for Honey Bee. The Honey Bee "riparian buffer" initiative, just one of the five questions raised in a $14-million Parks, Open Space and Trails Bond, asks voters to float a bond issue of some $3.12 million to buy up 51 acres on the east side of the canyon and preserve it as open space.

Vistoso Partners is already selling off some 44 homesites on the western ridge of the shallow canyon, at prices ranging from $120,000 on up to $295,000 for lots right at canyon's edge. Some of these lots are just 150 feet from the centerline of the canyon's wash. At least one house is already under construction.

If the bond passes, and the land sale successfully comes off--no sure thing by any means--there would be a buffer of publicly held land on the east side of the canyon. Not only would the buffer give the canyon and its animals some breathing space and give hikers more room to roam, it would keep the next phase of 92 homesites some 800 to 1,000 feet distant from the canyon's centerline. If the bond fails, the developer likely would go ahead and sell off those 51 acres close to the east side of the canyon as homesites for 36 additional houses. That would leave Honey Bee hemmed in on both sides by houses.

"As far as the wildlife goes, the wider the buffer the better," says Nancy Young Wright, president of the Oro Valley Neighborhood Coalition, and an ardent soldier in the fight to save the canyon.

Even in this driest of winters, on a recent Saturday afternoon Honey Bee was gurgling water along about a half-mile stretch, what UA research biologist Patty Estes calls the "perennial stretch." Honey Bee's eponymous bees buzzed merrily over the water. Hawks swooped overhead. There was a scent of javelina. Sunlight slanted through the canyon's thick stands of mesquite and cottonwood onto the carpet of thick green grass watered by the stream. A thousand-year-old Hohokam petroglyph owl etched into rock quietly stood guard over the troops of healthy saguaros.

The canyon still was a little haven of peace despite the wheeling and dealing around it. The fate of Honey Bee is a classic Western story: first Indian land and then ranch land, in the early '80s it was part of a swap for state park land. It briefly entered into the Hopi/Navajo land dispute as part of a Federal trade. Through its owner Conley Wolfswinkel it got caught up in the Keating scandal. It was part of the Resolution Trust Corporation scandal after Wolfswinkel declared bankruptcy and then bought it up again from the RTC for a fraction of the original price.

Image Nowadays, Honey Bee seems to be serving as a lightning rod over the uproar raised by development that has turned a small, rural town into a sprawling suburb complete with traffic jams and over-crowded schools.

"Most people feel very strongly one way or another about Honey Bee," says Wright. "They're either very strongly for or very strongly against."

Some opponents of the initiative see it as a costly way to protect what amounts to what one council member contemptuously called "rocks and cactus." Others see it as anti-business. Still others see the bond election as too little too late, a battle fought too late to save the war.

Estes, the biologist, says it's absolutely essential to put a buffer in along Honey Bee, even if the canyon has already been compromised by the upcoming development on its west bank.

"Arizona has only 10 percent of its riparian areas left," she says. "People think saving Honey Bee is pretty radical. Should we let it (riparian areas) go to 5 percent?"

Saving the riparian area is not purely an aesthetic exercise either, Estes says. Honey Bee is part of a regional watershed that also serves as a wildlife corridor extending from the Tortolitas to the Catalinas. Its thick trees are nesting grounds for migrating neo-tropical birds. It waters such desert animals as mule deer and javelina who use the canyon as a corridor from the Tortolitas to the Catalinas.

"Honey Bee is important not only as a corridor but because animals can get to water. You don't have the riparian vegetation other places either, and some animals need that particular plant community. A lot of things come together in Honey Bee. The Rillito doesn't do that anymore. The Santa Cruz used to flow in our lifetime. Those habitats are gone."

And the demise of those habitats, Estes says, threatens the whole desert ecosystem. The Honey Bee developers who advertise their lots with gorgeous color photos of the canyon's many saguaros might be interested to know the development itself threatens the saguaros by reducing bat habitat.

"The bat population is endangered in the Southwest," Estes says. "They eat the insects that hang out near the water. Without bats we lose the saguaros because bats go from saguaro blossom to saguaro blossom transferring the pollen."

An underground waterway flows along beneath most of Honey Bee; the water comes to the surface where the bedrock pushes it up, Estes says. She worries that increasing population densities will eventually force groundwater pumping upstream of Honey Bee. And those greater hordes of humans likely will look to the canyon for recreation, especially as access to the Tortolita Mountain Park now under consideration by Pima County. The buffer would give the town space to put in a ridge trail above the canyon and leave the wash for the animals.

Estes is optimistic the voters will approve the buffer, but if the vote goes against it, she fears for Honey Bee's life.

"If we have to have houses hanging over the edge of the canyon and people walking up the middle, as a biologist I have very little hope that Honey Bee will be able to function either as a habitat or a corridor." TW

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