Tumamoc Hill, Ariz. - When the Carnegie Institution established its desert laboratory on this stony, black basalt hill 94 years ago, some 12,000 residents lived in the small town of Tucson two miles to the east. Today Tucson has grown to almost half a million people, and Sunbelt sprawl threatens the future of one of the nation's oldest continuously operated biological field stations.
The Desert Laboratory, operated by the
University of Arizona, encompasses 869 acres of Sonoran desert
scrub that has remained relatively pristine since livestock grazing
was halted in 1907. The surrounding area is awash in new housing
and resort development.
The university owns part
of Tumamoc Hill, including the laboratory's historic stone
buildings. But 320 acres of the total are owned by the Arizona
State Land Department.
The land department is
currently considering whether to renew the permit that allows the
university to use 320 acres of state trust land as part of the
laboratory, raising fears that the state might opt to sell the land
to deep-pocketed developers. If that happens, the laboratory would
lose some of its long-term monitoring plots, where slow-paced
changes in vegetation have been watched for nearly a
"It wouldn't shut down the research
projects here, but it would mutilate them," says Paul Martin, a
geosciences researcher who has been stationed at the laboratory
since 1957. "We have time on our side here. After collecting almost
100 years of data you can really start cashing in on how the desert
Early laboratory researchers were
meticulous in counting and mapping plants on the site. By looking
at their data, botanists in recent decades have been able to
document the spread of non-native species - more than 50 at last
count - as well as ups and downs in the populations of saguaros,
creosote bushes and other desert perennials. They have learned
volumes not only about how individual plant species adapt to the
desert, but how species interact.
"All of the
research conducted here revolves around the changes that happen
over time," says Raymond Turner, a Desert Laboratory botanist who
has devoted much of his career to monitoring long-term vegetation
changes in the Southwest. "Some of the vegetation plots here were
first mapped in 1906. They are the oldest plots in the world on
which individual plants have been censused."
They are also very cheap plots. The university
currently pays the state land department a bargain fee of $4,199 a
year to use the land. The land department, which is charged with
making a maximum profit on its land to support public schools,
could make a lot more money than that if it sold to a developer.
Construction of new homes and resort facilities around Tumamoc Hill
has raised estimates of the value of those 320 acres to as high as
several million dollars, according to state
Charles Geoffrion, associate vice
president for research at the University of Arizona, says the
university, which has faced significant budget cuts in recent
years, probably can't afford the land if the state puts it up for
But, the rapidly escalating land values
around Tumamoc Hill, ironically, may buy its defenders some time.
Dennis Cady of the state land department says that even if
approached by a developer, the department might decide not to sell
the land now.
"We look at when the best time is
to sell the land, when revenues will be highest," he says. "That
may not be until more development has occurred in the area."
In the meantime, some land department officials
have begun exploring other ways to preserve the laboratory. Last
year, state legislators passed a law that allows the department to
designate state land near towns and cities for conservation. The
land would still be auctioned or leased to the highest bidder, but
with the stipulation that it remain
Last fall, the university submitted
a formal proposal asking that the department dedicate the land for
conservation. Officials say the land department will likely decide
on the university's application by late spring, after a public
comment period. If its request is approved, the university will
have from three to eight years to raise money to buy the land at
market value. Anticipating such a possibility, the Pima County
Board of Supervisors is considering a bond package - which voters
would decide in May - that would include funds for that
Voters may not be thrilled about that.
But at a time when urban sprawl confronts residents throughout the
Tucson area, there will likely be considerable support for
preserving Tumamoc Hill as open space, as a research facility, and
as a hitherto underappreciated local
"We're getting the pulse of the desert
here," says the laboratory's Paul Martin. "In the future, if all
goes well here, Tucson will be known as a community with unusual
access to how the desert works."
The Arizona State
Land Department will hold a public hearing in Tucson on the
university's application at 1:30 p.m. on April 3, at 400 W.
Congress, room 5.