“Only when the last tree has died, the last fish caught, and the last river poisoned, will we realize that we cannot eat money.”Cree Indian proverb, quoted by Buckeye, AZ Mayor Jackie Meck at the January 9, 2016 grand opening of his city’s 8,700-acre park in the White Tank Mountains
When Mayor Meck was a boy growing up in Buckeye, Arizona, and roaming its wild and rugged White Tank Mountains, there were 1,200 people in what was then a quiet farming town about 35 miles west of Phoenix. Today, Buckeye is a city of 61,000 that is projected to grow to as many as 1.5 million people over the next 50 years.
Buckeye and other communities in the West Valley of Phoenix accept that growth is coming and welcome the economic opportunities it will bring. But, as in so many other parts of the West, perhaps even in your community, the challenge is to manage development in a way that preserves a community’s heritage, culture, and natural assets.
Enter the White Tank Mountains Conservancy. Its mission is to ensure that tens of thousands of acres of open space and natural habitat in the White Tank Mountains are conserved, permanently protected from development, and made more accessible for the public to appreciate and enjoy.
The Sonoran Institute is proud to be one of the conservancy’s charter members, as we see the West Valley as a microcosm of the massive challenges we are encountering throughout the West. The White Tanks are a prime example of how collaborative conservation can bring win-win solutions to the table.
The “Crown Jewel” of the West Valley
The White Tank Mountains encompass some of the best conserved natural and cultural areas in the greater Phoenix metropolitan region, featuring a large mule deer herd, mountain lions, Javelina, petroglyphs, and Sonoran Desert plant life. The mountains also offer outstanding recreation opportunities. In addition to Buckeye’s new Skyline Regional Park, the mountains contain the largest county park in the U.S.—the nearly 30,000-acre White Tank Regional Park, managed by the Maricopa County Parks Department. Both parks include hiking, biking, and horseback riding trails, as well as picnic and camping facilities. Eventually, the trail networks of the two parks will be joined, providing visitors access to almost 39,000 acres of protected land.
Without proper planning, however, these parks and the mountains’ other resources could become entirely surrounded and overwhelmed by development. Houses are already pushing to the edges of the mountains. Open space could ultimately disappear, and with more development and infrastructure filling in the valley, the natural connections that wildlife rely on for migration, forage, and genetic diversity could be cut off.
“We don’t want to see houses all the way to the top of these mountains,” says Mayor Meck. “We need to provide right now for open space to be here for eternity. If we don’t do it today, it won’t be here tomorrow.”
A Conservancy is Born
The White Tank Mountains Conservancy is the brainchild of Todd Hornback, executive director of Community Life at DMB, the developer of Verrado, Buckeye’s first master-planned community. DMB is known for sustainable development that “sits lightly on the land” and honors the history and heritage of each unique site.
“Even most developers don’t want houses all the way to the top of the mountains,” Hornback says. “At DMB, we like to think that part of our DNA is being responsible stewards of the land.”
Indeed, DMB has deep roots in conservation and stewardship. It was instrumental in the 1991 launch of the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, a 47-square-mile preserve next to its DC Ranch development in Scottsdale. Seeing the momentum for conservation building with the planned Skyline Regional Park, and with their market research showing a high demand for recreation opportunities, DMB decided the time was right to do something similar in the West Valley.
“The White Tank Mountains have an important history,” Hornback says. “We’re trying to make sure that we learn that history, and that we preserve it over the long haul. We’re perpetuating that story for future generations.”
A conservancy differs from simple land preservation in the broadness of its vision. In addition to protecting land from development, a conservancy involves active stewardship of the property’s wildlife, habitat, and other natural resources. It also includes environmental education and outreach. The White Tank Mountains Conservancy’s reach will eventually extend over 70,000 acres, which will include the two regional parks. Volunteer stewards will plan, build, and maintain trails; lead guided nature walks; staff park entrance gates; and conduct environmental education outreach to local school districts, rotary groups, and other community organizations. Funds raised will go toward operating expenses and new facilities.
Hornback’s first call in launching the effort was to Mayor Meck, and he then engaged Les Myers from Experience Matters, a Phoenix-based organization that connects skilled retirees with nonprofits, to act as temporary administrator. Together they began to convene the major players to form the backbone of the conservancy’s organization and head one of six key committees, or focus areas: regional planning and partnerships; stewardship and volunteerism; research; education and training; tourism and public attractions; and advocacy and public policy.
Involving the Sonoran Institute: “A No-Brainer”
Facing a complicated patchwork of jurisdictions and landownership in and around the mountains, the founders knew they needed to involve people who would bring a regional focus and collaborative spirit to the initiative. When it came to choosing a leader for the advocacy and public policy committee, asking the Sonoran Institute and our Sun Corridor Legacy Program Director Ian Dowdy was “a no-brainer,” Hornback says. In addition to the Sonoran Institute’s strong presence and brand recognition in Arizona and the West Valley, Hornback says our balanced approach to advocacy around environmental preservation made us a natural choice.
“Arizona has a very rich history of individual property rights,” he says. “You can’t tell landowners in the West what to do with their land. The Sonoran Institute understands that. In my opinion, their moderate approach is why they succeed in Arizona.”
Ian Dowdy jumped in and helped the conservancy gain momentum and credibility right from the start. He organized a series of overflights of the White Tank Mountains for stakeholders and reporters, earning favorable news coverage in the Arizona Republic and the local PBS affiliate. The research and data he has provided have also helped sell the initiative to donors and other key leaders in the region. Ian also serves on the conservancy’s board as treasurer.
“Ian and the Sonoran Institute have really stepped up,” says Mayor Meck. “They have been with us every step of the way and have been instrumental in helping us get this far. I’m tickled to death to have Ian on our board.”
An Official Non-Profit
The conservancy is on a roll. It recently secured not-for-profit status and is close to reaching its fundraising goal to hire a part-time executive director. Its inaugural class of 25 volunteer stewards recently completed training and will soon begin trail work, a natural resource inventory, and outreach.
In closing his remarks to officially open Skyline Regional Park in January, Mayor Meck issued an invitation and appeal that can apply to all of us throughout the West: “So, enjoy this beautiful canvas that nature has provided us here. And please protect it.”