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Urbanizing White Tanks

By Shaun McKinnon
The Arizona Republic Online
July 24, 2000
Web posted at: 4:36 PM EDT (2036 GMT)

PHOENIX, Arizona (The Arizona Republic Online) -- Javelina and mule deer roam the rugged White Tank Mountains barely 35 miles from downtown Phoenix, sharing the bajada with coyotes, raccoons, squirrels, rattlesnakes and sometimes a wandering mountain lion or a determined hiker.

It's still a relatively quiet corner of the Valley, unfamiliar to a lot of folks, but that's about to change.

Construction has begun on the first custom homes at the base of the mountains in Buckeye and developers have filed plans for tens of thousands more along the western edge of the range. Planners predict that by 2025, more than 125,000 people will live within three miles of the 4,000-foot peaks.

State and local officials are working on various land-use blueprints that would protect the most sensitive parts of the White Tanks, but conservationists worry that growth will isolate the mountains and transform a diverse and thriving ecosystem into just another urban island.

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"We don't even know what the far-reaching effects are going to be when we start changing the desert," said Sandra Mobley, an educator at the 26,000-acre White Tank Mountains Regional Park, run by Maricopa County. "It might not be apparent on the surface, but you throw everything all out of whack when you put too many people in a given area."

Although home builders are still a few years from clearing wide swaths of land around the mountains, the range is drawing a lot of attention: Maricopa County, behind Supervisor Jan Brewer, has applied for title to 2,800 acres along the park's west side now controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has endorsed the idea, urging greater protection for a park he sees as an "island that will inevitably be isolated by an onslaught of tens of thousands of homes." The Maricopa County Flood Control District has proposed to include McMicken Dam in a network of trails that could maintain critical migratory paths for mountain lions, deer and other wildlife.

Buckeye annexed a huge area west of the mountains and developers moved in quickly with plans for several master-planned communities. Homes already are sprouting on the old Caterpillar proving grounds, 8,800 acres now owned by DMB.

The State Land Department has allowed Del Webb and Johnson International to prepare conceptual plans for more than 15,000 acres on the east side of the White Tanks. A citizens group opposes the potential sale and has filed its own plan, but the developers likely will have a chance to bid on the land.

Members of the White Tanks Concerned Citizens Group worry that growth will swallow the range, invoking images of Ahwatukee climbing up the side of South Mountain in Phoenix.

"If we keep developing around the mountains, there's not going to be anyplace for people to get away," Carolyn Robles said.

Mobley said residents of the communities likely will see a lot of their wildlife neighbors at first.

"You're going to have human and mountain lion interaction, which is usually not good, especially for the mountain lion because they end up being relocated," she said.

Too many homes, she said, will cut off the routes some animals need to travel between mountain ranges. A mountain lion, for example, needs a huge territory and can prowl from the White Tanks all the way to the Bradshaws, the Harquahalas or even the Harcuvars in Yavapai County.

Other mountain park officials say they're holding on in spite of encroaching development. South Mountain is hemmed in on nearly every side by homes and businesses, yet ranger supervisor Bob Burnett said it's not the ecological wasteland some environmentalists describe.

"I think we're doing a good job," he said. "There's still a lot of wildlife left in the mountains here."

Javelina, coyotes, ringtail cats, foxes and hawks live in the 16,500 acres, and it's not unheard of to spot a mountain lion. A master plan has allowed the city to keep up with human demands, Burnett said.

Usery Mountain Recreation Area in the far East Valley watched a new master-planned community roll up to the park's south boundary, but educator Jerry Waehner said the county-run preserve is adapting, working with the home builder during construction.

"We are part of a much larger ecosystem, much larger desert area," he said. "Our boundaries open up on the Tonto National Forest and that works to our advantage."

Land-use plans in the far West Valley address the White Tanks, but don't always agree with each other. Maricopa County has proposed low-density development on the northern and eastern edges of the park, calling for no more than one home per acre. The State Land Department, conversely, believes the land would be better managed with mixed uses, higher-density neighborhoods next to open space.

Surprise's general plan update offers something down the middle, with low- to medium-density housing proposed along the northern edges of the mountains, but with a greenbelt buffer at the park boundary.

State Land Commissioner Michael Anable believes mile upon mile of one-acre lots are "a recipe for sprawl." Park educator Mobley tends to agree, reasoning that any space left open could help in the long term.

"Phoenix has changed so much, it bears very little resemblance to the Sonoran Desert," she said. "It's amazing when people come out here and they realize they finally know what the desert looks like."

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