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Hot, Dry and Paved

Despite overly academic prose, 'Natural Environments of Arizona' effectively illustrates man's impact on the land


New arrivals to the Arizona Territory in 1905 must have thought this normally arid land was a paradise.

We have all seen the Sonoran Desert when it is inspired by a brief sprinkling of late-afternoon rainfall. But what if it rained something like 25 inches in one year (nearly twice the normal average) like it did in 1905, the wettest year on record? It must have been glorious.

Such reverie-inducing statistics can be found in the informative new UA Press book Natural Environments of Arizona: From Deserts to Mountains, a careful reading of which reveals how utterly we have failed this land.

For example, we have made it hotter here than it already was--and it was already the hottest desert in North America before we arrived en masse after World War II to begin changing the wilderness into car-centric, fossil fuel-dependent cities. In an excellent chapter on the state's climate, UA professor emeritus William Sellars finds that the state's "minimum temperature averaged significantly higher during the 1953-2002 period than it did prior to the early 1940s."

This is proof, Sellers writes, of the urban heat island effect, through which nighttime temperatures stay rather high, because the heat is stored in buildings and asphalt. Indeed, Sellers finds that the average minimum temperature in the Phoenix area has increased by nearly 7 degrees Fahrenheit since the early 1960s, while the average maximum temperature has gone up only about 2 degrees Fahrenheit. Apparently, we love the heat so much, we never want it to cool down.

Additionally, Sellers writes, average nighttime temperatures in the state's deserts were significantly lower prior to the 1940s than they are today. Temperatures as low as 0 degrees Fahrenheit were recorded along washes in the Tucson area, and in 1937, Tucson's temperatures were below normal every day for a month.

"The most likely cause for most of the increase in the average temperature in Arizona since the early 1940s is the rapid expansion in the population and the industrial development that occurred in the area during and following World War II," Sellers concludes.

This leaves us colonists with a rather suspect cultural and environmental legacy here in the Southwest.

We have also made sure that a landscape that was already something like 99.6 percent dry when we got here could no longer, about 150 years later, host the few life-giving rivers that once flowed freely throughout the state and sustained complex indigenous cultures for centuries. We have dammed up, polluted and altered the natural flow of pretty much every river that once flowed within the state's boundaries, leaving only a few rare riparian areas left to be protected. The native fish that once populated the rivers and streams here are barely holding on these days, while some species have been killed off altogether.

And what have we traded for it all? Have we built a human culture to rival all others? Have we traded the integrity of some of the world's rarest ecosystems for cities so beautiful, well-built and culturally exciting that the tradeoff can in some sense be justified? Hardly. Anglo culture in Arizona is a joke, inasmuch as there is one.

In a concluding chapter called "Human Impacts," the book's editors, UA professors Peter F. Ffolliott and Owen K. Davis, explain that things have changed since the 1980s and 1990s. Environmentalists and citizen activists, once pariahs in this part of the West, now have a strong voice in the state, though this came about only after environmentalists started suing everybody. But just when it looked like Arizonans were getting smarter about preserving the land, the boom in second homes and single-family tract developments began--booms that have resulted in myriad issues and troubles for the pine forests in the central and northern parts of the state, as well as on the disappearing deserts down here.

The editors' goal with this book was reportedly to update the UA Press 1964 classic Arizona's Natural Environment, by Charles Lowe. While they have put together a useful and, in a sense, elegiac book, it tends too much toward the scholarly and is written in the dry, charmless prose typical of that breed. They have not surpassed Lowe's efforts: His book has many more photographs that provide helpful examples of the ecosystems he's describing, and his writing is better than that of the new book's contributors.

These are small issues, however, and they should not deter anyone interested in Arizona's natural environments--those we still have and those we have lost--from reading this informative book.

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