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When lovers of the Sonoran Desert talk about it, you can almost imagine grandchildren rolling their eyes as old-timers describe the way things used to be. How beautiful the desert was before it became a golf course.
But words describing the land don't come close to the experience of being there. On the north slope of Little Granite Mountain in north Scottsdale, power lines disappear from view and the unique lushness of the upper Sonoran Desert becomes obvious. The orange from the wildflowers is blinding. Stately saguaros stand amid spiny cholla and paloverde trees. It is at once lovely and harsh. More important, it is an escape from the noise, concrete and urban sprawl surrounding it.
Other cities of Phoenix's size -- and poor air quality -- offer culture, nightlife, entertainment and architecture. The Valley has the desert. And everybody wants a piece of it.
With development eating up open space at a rate of about an acre an hour, according to the most recent study by ASU's Morrison Institute for public policy, those who love it have become like animals marking their territory.
The fiercest argument is between those who believe no land is good land until it's paved over, and those who torch development in the name of preserving God's sacred creation. But caught in the crossfire are the people who go to the desert simply to have a good time. Increasingly, bikers, hikers, climbers, horseback riders and others are finding their playgrounds covered in red-tiled roofs.
As they are being squeezed out, the kids are not playing nice with each other. "When you get down to it, there's too many rats in the box," says longtime rock climber Paul Diefenderfer.
Tensions are running high among groups that basically want the same thing -- access. Recreation groups are realizing that if they want access to open land, they're going to have to fight. They are organizing, handing out fliers, giving speeches at Land Department meetings. They are showing their environmental friendliness by doing trail cleanups and maintenance.
And they are pointing fingers, accusing others of leaving more than footprints, taking more than pictures. For many groups, it isn't just about having fun anymore. It's about politics, alliances and constituency building. Some argue it's about discrimination, as users of the land realize that not all recreation was created equal.
The most heated battle now concerns the parcel of State Trust land in North Scottsdale which preservationists want to add to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. This 16,600-acre patch of paradise has become the hottest land issue for every outdoors person and saguaro-hugger in the Valley.
Everybody is drawing a line in the sand.
On any given weekend, hikers, mountain bikers, climbers and equestrians emerge from their suburban garages, urban apartments and gated communities to descend upon the Sonoran Desert.
The parking area near Pima and Dynamite roads is packed. Spandex-clad mountain bikers brush past dirt bikers rolling their machines off of flatbed trucks. Climbers throw ropes over shoulders, trail blazers tie on hiking boots and strap on water packs.
More and more, theirs is becoming a nomadic quest. Recreation groups have been expelled from areas like this for years. In some cases they just move on; in others they try to stay and fight. Climbers and bikers have struggled with the City of Scottsdale to reopen the Pinnacle Peak area since 1995. Dirt bikers have moved north from Squaw Peak, to Shea, to the McDowell Mountain Area.
When the State Land Department announced this year that it would consider the City of Scottsdale's petition to save a 16,600-acre parcel of desert surrounding the McDowell Mountains, preservationists and recreationists mobilized their troops.
Preservationists and homeowners in the area, as they are wont, say it is a place of unique scenic beauty and wildlife habitat that must be saved for future generations. In 1990, citizens of Scottsdale formed the McDowell Sonoran Land Trust (MSLT), a nonprofit organization whose goal is to preserve a 57-square-mile desert open space area. The trust partnered with the City of Scottsdale's McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission.
In 1995, Scottsdale voters agreed to tax themselves and visitors a little extra and spend the money buying preserve lands. If the state approves the petition to conserve the trust land, the city will eventually purchase the 16,600 acres with these funds, and add them to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.
If the land isn't conserved, it will most likely be developed. By law, State Trust land must be auctioned to the highest bidder. According to the State Land Department, in fiscal year 1999 it sold 1,195 acres for development. In 2000, that number jumped to 4,254 acres. Another 4,700 are marked for sale in 2001.
In February, more than 1,000 people packed a Scottsdale auditorium and spilled out onto the sidewalks for a public hearing on the city's petition to preserve this parcel. Local homeowners sat alongside environmentalists, waving signs that read "Save Our Desert." They squared off with the recreation clubs, which had sent frenzied e-mails encouraging members to speak out at the hearing.
And they did. Cheers, whistles and applause rang out as climbers and hikers spoke of their love for the desert. Green-shirted environmental activists who evoked images of bloody battle and fighting to save the land, met with frequent boos from a large group of red-shirted folks who have come to be known as "recreational terrorists."