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Women for Wilderness

Great Old Broads invade the Tumacacori Highlands

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Go ahead and call them a bunch of old broads. They'll grin and thank you. And then they'll tell you about their latest campaign to preserve wildlands.

Last week, a couple dozen Great Old Broads for Wilderness from all over the United States joined up with local wilderness advocates and descended on the Calabasas campground near Peña Blanca Lake. The came to hike, eat, drink, talk and raise awareness about a proposed new wilderness area 40 miles south of town in the rugged Tumacacori Highlands. The gathering was one of three or four "Broadwalks"--get-togethers involving camping, parties, hikes and educational talks--the group is sponsoring around the U.S. this year.

Great Old Broads is a national advocacy organization with about 3,000 members, mostly in the West and Northeast. The typical Broad is a woman in her 50s who loves to hike, but the group doesn't discriminate. Broads need not be either elderly, or even female--just "bold for wilderness."

Clearly, this is not your garden-variety environmental organization. The group's quarterly newsletter is called Broadsides; people in sympathy with their aims are said to be "Broad-minded;" younger members are sometimes referred to as "Broads-in-Training," or just "Training Broads." As Ginger Harmon, a founding Broad, once told a reporter, "If you don't think it's funny, you obviously don't belong in the group."

The irreverent but determined--and practical--spirit of the older outdoor women who started the organization in 1989 continues to inspire its growing membership.

"We bring a different voice to the discussion," says Broads Executive Director Ronni Egan. "We're very good at being heard. Broads have a sense of humor, which is something that's sorely lacking in the environmental movement. We show up in the halls in D.C. in our T-shirts and crack people up. That's disarming. And of course, we tend to remind politicians and officials of their mothers. They feel they have to at least hear us out."

Broads work closely with a number of mainstream environmental organizations, in particular the Wilderness Support Center of the Wilderness Society. They specialize in drawing attention to wilderness issues and promoting understanding between environmental organizations and other stakeholders. The group is also active in training locals to monitor and document environmental impacts in wild areas--particularly off-road-vehicle abuses.

Harmon, 75, a co-chair and founding member, was among those in town for last week's event. A former Tucsonan, Harmon is a legendary outdoorswoman. She's hiked and canyoneered around the world: In the 1980s, she walked from the Hook of Holland to the South of France, and wrote a book that was published as a Sierra Club guide. She also walked the path followed by St. Francis of Assisi through central Italy with naturalist and writer Gary Nabhan--that also became a book--and hiked up Mount Wrightson every weekend for months with former Arizona Daily Star columnist Ed Severson when he was getting in shape to climb a mountain in the Andes. Reputedly, she'd rather sleep in a sleeping bag than in a bed.

In explaining the Broads' mission, Harmon recalls coming out of the canyons of the Escalante in Southern Utah after a long, strenuous backpacking trip in the mid-'90s to learn that while they'd been recreating in the back of Utah, Sen. Orrin Hatch had said that wilderness status for the Escalante was a bad idea because it would deprive the elderly of access to the area. Harmon and her friends decided to put themselves forward as a living refutation of his argument.

"Don't blame roads on us, was our message," she says.

Says Egan: "We value wilderness for its own sake, and we want to see it preserved. Broads believe that we all need wilderness, and that wild places have a right to exist whether we go there or not."

The Broad most responsible for the current push to designate 84,000 acres of national forest land in the Tumacacori, Atascosa and Pajarito mountains as wilderness is Birdie Stabel, a retired Park Service naturalist and real estate agent who's lived in Tubac for more than 30 years. (Her husband, Nick Bleser, is also a Broad in good standing.) Protection for the Highlands has long been a dream of Southern Arizona biologists and hikers, but it was only with Raul Grijalva's election to Congress in 2002 that it began to look doable.

"Almost the entire area is in Congressman Grijalva's district," Stabel says, "and he's a friend of wilderness."

The Highlands rise as towering, folded, jagged cliffs just to the west of Interstate 19 south of the Arivaca exit, and extend roughly 10 miles to the west and 25 miles to the south. The topography is so rough that the only way across is unpaved Ruby Road, although a dozen or so designated Forest Service roads--all of which are hard-going--reach into the more accessible canyons. Ruby Road and the existing Forest Service roads would remain open if the area becomes wilderness, although some wildcat tracks would be closed. The operations of the seven or eight ranchers with grazing allotments in the Highlands would be unaffected, proponents say, except for a requirement that they obtain permits to take motorized vehicles off existing roads. The Arizona Cattle Growers Association, which usually opposes all new wilderness designations, opposes the plan, as do several local mineral prospectors.

In general, though, says Stabel, support in the Santa Cruz River valley for the wilderness is strong: She ran a petition table at the festival in Tubac recently, and in two days, encountered only one couple who said that they opposed the plan. Gov. Janet Napolitano and a long list of environmental groups and local businesses are for it.

Grijalva is expected to introduce a bill to the House that would give the area wilderness status in the next month or two. The Sky Island Alliance, another moving force behind the proposal, are hopeful that they can get one of Arizona's two senators to sponsor a bill in the Senate.

"Strong local support is one reason that we're hopeful about the bill's chances in Congress," says Mike Quigley of the Sky Islands Alliance, which is interested in protecting the area not just for its own merits, but also as a crucial link in the archipelago of mountain habitat that supports some of the richest biological communities in North America.

In the last few years, there have been a number of documented sightings of jaguars and their tracks in the Highlands, which makes the area the northernmost edge of the endangered cats' range, and the only place in the U.S. where they are still found. (In the 19th century, jaguars ranged as far north as the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, according to Sergio Avila, a wildlife biologist with the Alliance.)

"What's significant about the presence of jaguars is that it means that what the jaguars need is here, which means that the area is healthy. Jaguars are at the top of the food chain," says Avila.

(The very top. A biologist recently found a mountain-lion claw in jaguar scat.)

Says Quigley: "The wilderness plan emerged from road surveys that we started conducting some years ago. We found that because it is so very rugged, this area is remarkably roadless, and it was clear that the best way to keep it that way, and to discourage irresponsible use of ATVs in the area, was wilderness designation."

Roads turn out to be the key issue in wilderness protection, and they preoccupy people who are concerned with it. The worst thing about new roads in the wilds is not that they allow people to come in, but that they alter the landscape in ways that harm struggling plant and animal communities.

"Even a little two-lane track cuts up the landscape for the species on the ground," says Nancy Zierenberg of the Arizona Native Plant Society, who came along on the Broadwalk. "Not many people realize how destructive it is to drive around off-road."

Wilderness designation would also ensure that the Highlands remain isolated from the development that's spreading inexorably across the Santa Cruz River valley below.

"Walking up to Atascosa Peak, I've been out all day and not seen another human being," says Quigley. "Here we are in 2006 with a million people living within an hour's drive from the trailhead, and you can still find that solitude. I think that's just stunning. And we have the opportunity to keep it that way."

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