Monday, January 14, 2013

The Real Treasure

January 7, 2013 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

This column often features stories about lost gold, prospectors, geology, and a variety of associated topics. However, the real gold of the Superstition Wilderness Area is its natural ecosystem.

The region is part of the fragile Upper Sonoran Desert life zone controlled by precipitation, sun angle, slope angle, and elevation. The fauna and flora exhibits a wide-range diversity with plants ranging from the magnificent Saguaro cactus to the stately Ponderosa pine.

The fauna represents almost the entire spectrum of biological forms. The survival of animals and plants are dependent on the controls placed on man. Actually man is the most destructive predator placed in any natural ecosystem. The desert is a very fragile and sensitive environment easily disrupted by the activities of humans.

The statement “man should be only a temporary visitor to a wilderness,” is philosophically sound. However, the temporary visitation of man to a wilderness is not realistic if limitations are not placed on the number of visitors or visitations. As Americans, we must determine what portion of our public lands should be preserved in their natural state and what lands should be highly impacted by development. All development and no preservation causes the crowding of to many people into one place and eventually leads to
urban blight.

Arizona’s greatest assets are its public lands (open spaces) and its climate. The two are entwined in the minds of visitors and residents alike. Each year more and more of our public lands are slated for development with little or no concern for the future of open space. Some politicians believe open space is not a cost-effective option for public lands.

The National Wilderness Act of 1964 and 1984 preserved several million acres of Arizona’s public lands for future generations of  Americans to enjoy. Each year more and more Americans want to have a wilderness experience. These enormous demands have impacted the wilderness areas and state public lands.

There is a tremendous need in our state for open space, access to public lands, and green belts within communities, not just golf courses (which are considered ‘open spaces’). Golf courses are not an efficient or effective use of water resources. Families with small children or school children don’t have much use for golf courses. Arizona has a great opportunity to become a special place in America, not just another California.

The Superstition Wilderness Area is becoming an urban wilderness with little protection for its ecosystem. It serves as a large hiking and riding park for the Phoenix metropolitan area and surrounding communities that have limited open space. The Tonto National Forest ranger district has taken steps to control the impact on the Superstition Wilderness Area by assessing parking fees and limiting parking space at two of the major trailheads. An estimated 100,000 visitors access the Superstition Wilderness Area each year and, as the Phoenix metropolitan area continues to grow, the impact on the far East Valley and Apache Junction will increase.

Open space is one of America’s most valuable resources and, while its value cannot be measured easily, it is in tremendous demand. Real estate prices along the Tonto National Forest fence line east of Apache Junction should convince anyone how valuable open space is. There is an old saying, “Our hearts scream open space, however our pocket books scream for profit.”

Users of the Superstition Wilderness will eventually be even more restricted because of growth in the Salt River Valley and the limited access to the wilderness from the western side. Now is the time for Pinal County to start planning on large county regional parks that could be used for hiking and horseback riding. Without such parks there will be no future for those who come to Arizona searching for open spaces.

Where are the future planned households going to play in the outdoors? They certainly will not be playing in the Superstition Wilderness Area or along the shores of Canyon Lake. There will not be enough room for all of them and there will be too many  restrictions.

Grand Canyon National Park is an excellent example of restrictions in action. The use of Grand Canyon trails requires long range planning with trail use scheduled up to a year in advance. Every user is tagged and identified. If a user is not tagged and permitted they will be cited and fined. Is this the future of the Superstition Wilderness Area?

If the impact on the area continues at its present rate, there shouldn’t be any surprises for us in the future. Everyone interested in hiking, horseback riding and camping should keep themselves abreast of all regulations being implemented or recommended.

It is apparent the Superstition Wilderness Area has become a crowded wilderness. Fifty years ago man’s impact was restricted primarily to grazing allotments and limited mining. Some of those scars are still visible today. However, the most profound scars on the wilderness today are the trail systems. These developed wilderness trail systems are visible from space. The development of the trail system began in the early 1960’s as part of a program to allow easier access to the interior of the wilderness area for hikers and horseback
riders. Originally it was part of the multi-use plan for the management of public lands. This multi-use plan dynamically impacted the ecosystem of the wilderness by reducing the fauna between 1960-1990. A graded trail system is very costly and difficult to maintain. These trails today are directly linked to the overuse by the growing urbanization of the Salt River Valley.

The City of Apache Junction is making an effort to develop a trail system within the boundaries of the old “sheep drive”. This is a giant step in the right direction. The hurdles and issues that lie ahead for this to become a reality are enormous. However, where there are dreams, there is hope.

The real gold of the Sonoran Desert region is in the open space that has survived development, and the Superstition Wilderness Area is one of those real treasures. These lands and their ecosystem are protected from development, but not overuse. This vast wilderness preserves a large tract of public land for future Americans to enjoy. Fifty years from now our desendants will appreciate any effort we make today to preserve open space for the future. They will also recognize the immense value of the Superstition Wilderness Area to our nation and its citizens.

After all, a true wilderness is a place where man is only a temporary visitor and leaves no trace, therefore protecting its fragile ecosystem.