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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Sonoran Desert

Air Date: Week of

Arizona’s Sonoran Desert is one of the most biologically rich deserts in the world. Conservationists are calling for protection of this wilderness. One proposal calls on Congress to create a national park and preserve that would protect three million acres of desert. But, as reporter Jeff Rice reports, there’s something unusual about this piece of land: it includes a military bombing range.


CURWOOD: If you drive along the Arizona highway between Phoenix and Yuma, you'll see vast forests of suguaro cacti and mountains that shimmer in the distance. This is the Sonoran Desert, a place alive with biological riches and largely untouched by development. The Sonoran Desert was once called a wasteland, but today there are many who want to preserve its unique landscape. Recently, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt toured the desert with an eye on recommending it to President Clinton for national monument status. The President may designate this area as a monument without Congressional approval. But this is also part of a much larger land protection proposal. A group in Arizona wants to create a national park and a special preserve three times the size of the Grand Canyon. It would be the first national park to share a border with Mexico. It would also be the first to include a live military bombing range. Jeff Rice has our story.

(Wind, voices)

RICE: In Arizona there is a road called the Camino Del Diablo, which snakes along the border of the United States and Mexico. Translated from Spanish it means "the road of the devil," and this trail bisects one of the harshest environments in North America.

(Bird calls)

RICE: Because of a general lack of water, because of its extreme 120-degree heat in the summer time, the ancient tribes called it "the direction of suffering," and relatively few people even passed through. Many of those who did ended up buried along the trail.

DYKINGA: This whole area used to be the site of graves, where people died trying to scale up to these water holes. Oh, look at this. This is it.

(A shutter clicks)

RICE: That's Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Jack Dykinga. We're at one of the legendary stops on the Devil's Road, the Tinajas Altas or "high tanks." These rare, naturally-occurring water holes hidden among the cliffs are one of the only consistent sources of water for miles. Historians say there were once as many as 50 grave markers at this spot, memorializing the travelers who arrived here just short of salvation. (Shutter clicks) Today we watch from a distance as a family of Bighorn sheep approaches to drink.

DYKINGA: See, he's starting to climb out now. What a thrill, huh?

(Shutter clicks)

RICE: For a long time, this place was a well-kept secret among desert rats. Now you can get a permit to visit, and more and more people are discovering the area, with an estimated six to ten thousand visitors last year. But with increased visitation comes problems. At the Tinajas Altas, history is literally being driven over.

(Bird calls)

DYKINGA: Our worry is that, yeah, mostly these three-wheelers, ATVs --

RICE: Photographer Jack Dykinga points out that 150-year-old gravesites have been scattered by all-terrain vehicles, and some of the stone grave markers used for campfire rings.

DYKINGA: I think they're almost all obliterated right now. There might be one -- there's one cross right here. That's the only one. But basically, this whole area has been driven over. You can see campfire rings everywhere.

RICE: Campers are also threatening animal habitats.

DYKINGA: And as you can see, they're also, they're way too close to where the sheep are. So if people camp here, the sheep will simply not come to water.

RICE: Dykinga is part of an expedition to document this area for a photography website, and to promote the idea of protecting it as part of a national park and preserve. Stretching roughly between Tucson and Yuma, this is one of the most biologically rich deserts in the world, harboring well over 1,000 plant and animal species. If park advocates are successful, it would become the Sonoran Desert National Park and Preserve, the second-largest park in the United States - second in size only to California's Death Valley. What makes things all the more remarkable is this.

(Plane engines. A voice on radio)

RICE: Two-thirds of the land in the park proposal happens to be on a military bombing range.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, what they're doing right now is called a dive-bomb. This one is basically a 30-degree dive, and they're releasing the weapon at about 5,000 feet in the air...

RICE: The Air Force flies about 70,000 training missions a year here on the Barry M. Goldwater Range, relentlessly pounding the desert with machinegun fire and explosives. And as Colonel Fred Pease, who oversees the nation's bombing ranges, points out, there aren't a whole lot of other places in the country where you can do that.

PEASE: It's the one location in the United States where we train all our F-16 pilots and our A-10 pilots to learn how to fly those two aircraft. We have some smaller installations that are starting to do that, but we fly more sorties there than any other range. It's extremely important.

RICE: Advocates for the park don't disagree. And here's something odd. They want to allow the military to continue bombing, even as park rangers manage the land.

(Bird calls)

RICE: What's going on here? How does this fit with the concept of a national park? It turns out that while planes need a lot of airspace to fly, they don't need much room on the ground for target practice. Only a fraction of the land on the range, anywhere from three to six percent of it, is actually used for military training. The remaining 2.5 million acres stretches out into a gigantic safety buffer.

BOWDEN: Thank God, they want to train pilots out there and can keep on doing it forever. It's cheaper than guards.

RICE: Writer and park advocate Charles Bowden argues that in a way, the military presence has been a good thing for the land. Since World War II it's kept out major development and destructive land uses like mining and grazing.

BOWDEN: Look, if we hadn't been essentially at war since 1940, this place would look like Phoenix. I have no quarrel with the military. Due to our military needs, this place has been protected from the only thing that could ever really destroy it: myself, you, anyone listening to this.

RICE: Some call the more than 5,000 square miles of wilderness out here the last great opportunity in the U.S. for environmental preservation. It would also be an international opportunity, linking with already-existing preserves in Mexico that extend all the way to the Gulf of California. If successful, it would create the largest stretch of protected land south of the Arctic. Political heavyweights like Arizona Senator John McCain and former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall are supporters of the proposal. Public opinion polls show residents of staunchly conservative Arizona are also strongly in favor. The military, however, may be a reluctant suitor. Top brass worry that if the area becomes part of a park, the public might not favor continued bombing. Preserve it, but just don't use the park word. National range manager Colonel Pease:

PEASE: I guess the difference of opinion is what we call that piece of land out there, not how we take care of it and how it applies to the military mission.

RICE: Recently, the military has become more entrenched than ever. Where the Bureau of Land Management used to oversee the range's plants and wildlife, the military has recently been given sole charge. To help with the task, it's formed an advisory group, which includes agencies like the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the Bureau of Land Management, as well as archaeological experts. As far as the military is concerned, Air Force rangers are as good as park rangers. Park advocates take exception. Charles Bowden.

BOWDEN: I'd be terrified if we had a military problem and sent the Department of Interior to fix it. And I'm not too keen on the Department of Defense becoming the biologists for the Sonoran Desert.

RICE: The National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., agrees with proponents that the best group to manage the land is the National Park Service. David Simon is the association's southwest regional director.

SIMON: I believe that the Park Service's long-standing history of managing people will fit well with the military's concern about managing people in an area where active military operations are going on.

RICE: Congress, of course, will have the final say. The National Park Service itself is staying out of the debate, deferring to the lawmaking process on Capitol Hill. Arizona Senator John McCain submitted a bill to Congress in 1999, which proposed a feasibility study. The bill has been sitting with the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and is expected to be re-introduced to the new Congress. One of the big issues that study must address is how to include the live bombing range. It is technically against the law to bomb a national park. But park advocates have a suggestion: the area including the military range would be labeled a park preserve. By making it a park preserve, Congress could then define how the land would be used, which could include things like military training. Meanwhile, one million acres outside the range that includes Organ Pipe National Monument and other adjacent lands would be included in the proposal and given full park status. Park supporters say they are looking to the future, when the military may no longer need the range. At that point the entire three million acres could become official park land. Charles Bowden.

BOWDEN: And no one really thinks 30 years from now this is going to be easier to do or even possible. This is our chance, and it's the right thing to do, and we ought to take it.

(Coyotes and wind)

RICE: It's hard to know what the future of this desert range holds. But tonight, as we camp here, we can see distant flares from the military exercises. We hear no planes or explosions, just two coyotes who remind us that this is also their home.


For Living on Earth, this is Jeff Rice in Tucson.



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