Today, folks who built below Pusch Ridge adore the foothills wildlife--until it nibbles their bougainvillea. More habitat has vanished from this county than perhaps ever existed in some states. Cows are now seen as bulwarks against bulldozers. As for bighorn sheep, well, somebody figures they might have seen a footprint up beyond those pretty cul-de-sacs sometime back.
Growth has continued at freakish levels, although a crashing real estate market offers some hope. Still, even wayward water supplies haven't truly threatened this juggernaut; the housing industry, along with local government, still huddles under the Central Arizona Project's rippling chimera.
Yet time marches on. And some iconic battles from those days--stopping the UA telescopes on Mount Graham, for example, or blocking developer Don Diamond's Rocking K Ranch exurb--weren't exactly won, but they weren't totally lost, either.
The Mount Graham mountaintop telescopes are nearly due for review by the Coronado National Forest, and UA astronomers may lack the political muscle of yesteryear. Diamond did toss a few acreage bones to Saguaro National Park East, and bankrolled the Rincon Institute to cope with what his avarice had wrought.
Meanwhile, some things have actually improved. Though our fair city has plumped beyond reason, one recent UA analysis reveals that Arizona's population grew by a measly 1.6 percent in the last year, the lowest rate since the blistering recession in the 1990s.
And although we've had decades to ponder the mine tailings south of Tucson ("Manmade Mountains!" one real estate brochure enthused), citizens are tightly organized against a new mine proposed for Rosemont Valley in the Santa Rita Mountains.
So there is reason to hope. Indeed, tempered optimism is raison d'ètre among most conservationists. Among them is Carolyn Campbell, executive director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection. Campbell's coalition has been knee-deep in prodding Pima County's Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan (one true victory-in-progress) down the road to reality.
Since its late 1990s inception as a wildlife-protection blueprint, the project has spent roughly $120 million from a voter-approved bond to purchase or lease more than 160,000 acres.
To Campbell, that 2004 bond--when citizens earmarked nearly $175 million to buy open space--was a turning point. "In Pima County, people have always been working on protecting open space," she says, "and we've had open-space bonds for the last 20 years. But the big difference is the planning and scientific effort that went into this endangered-species project. The open space we targeted was key habitat for particular species, along with connectivity between some of the already preserved areas. So there was a little bit of method to the madness.
"It's why there's still a lot of support from the conservation community, and, I believe, the community at large," Campbell says. "We've had the best available science behind the plan, and not politics. But what is different now is that we have the political will among citizens. Before, it was like beating our heads against the wall."
Gayle Hartmann has also been in the trenches for eons, including a stint on the Pima County Planning and Zoning Commission. She now heads Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, a group fighting the proposed Rosemont mine. Hartmann heralds the addition of Sharon Bronson and Ray Carroll to the Pima County Board of Supervisors. Bronson was elected to the board in 1996, representing District 3; Carroll was appointed to represent District 4 a year later, and formally elected in 1998. Finally, says Hartmann, "there was a majority on the board that was really interested in conservation."
Both supervisors championed open-space preservation, and Carroll has fought the proposed Rosemont mine with a notable vengeance. In 2007, he garnered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Outstanding Achievement award.
Equally notable is a shift among Green Valley constituents in District 4 who support him. "Twenty years ago, Green Valley was always against any type of open space," says Hartmann, "and that's completely changed. I don't know if it's because there are more people there, or if the people there are somewhat different. But his district--although they may be politically conservative in some ways--now seems very concerned about environmental issues."
That concern has been critical in efforts to limit Santa Cruz Valley growth, including the vastly scaled-down Canoa Ranch development. Many Green Valley dwellers have also been bare-knuckle opponents of the Augusta mine.
Another positive change, says Hartmann, "is that we don't have quite as nasty a war between the pro-growth and no-growth sides. To some degree, I guess the pro-growthers won. But at the same time, I think there's a much better understanding of the need to do preservation and see that we have enough water."
Roger Featherstone, a longtime anti-mining activist, has likewise been in the fray for years. Today, he relishes the heat generated against Canadian-owned Augusta Resource Corp., the mining company hoping to gut Rosemont Valley. He's also guardedly cheered about legislation sifting through Congress to reform the despised 1872 Mining Act. This antiquated law gives mining companies such as Augusta near carte blanche in laying claim to public lands.
"Tucson has become a lot more conservation-minded in the last 20 years," Featherstone says, "and I think that really shows in the Rosemont fight. You now have to look long and hard to find anybody who's in favor of that mine.
"People understand," he says, "that Tucson has different values now when it comes to raping and pillaging the land than they did 20 years ago."
Despite that positive shift, says Featherstone, conservationists now face an unexpected foe: themselves. "Twenty-five years ago, when we were all here fighting, we worked really hard, and we had some successes and some real disappointments. But the pace wasn't nearly so frenetic. We had time to sit on a porch at night with buddies and drink beer.
"But now we've really gotten into this 'Alice in Wonderland' syndrome, where we're running twice as fast, and we're still falling behind. I think the conservation community has to take a serious look at the fact that they're working twice as hard and getting a lot less done--with a lot more stress and a lot more unhappiness.
"If I could start a new environmental trend," he half-chuckles, "it would be modeled on the slow-food movement."
So does long and languid dining offer any tantalizing hints for Tucson's environmental future? We'll pop a beer, gnaw a few pretzels and get back to you on that in about 25 years.