Tucson acts to stall sprawl

  -At least it's not Phoenix," mutter some Tucson residents when asked about the city's runaway growth.

But as Tucson continues to sprawl into the surrounding Sonoran desert, many think it's beginning to look a lot like its larger neighbor. Dismay over that relentless push helps to explain why, in late May, Pima County unanimously approved the creation of a long-range plan to protect the Sonoran Desert.

"This is as big as it gets," says Carolyn Campbell, director of a coalition of 31 environmental groups supporting the ambitious plan. It would set aside biologically rich private and public lands within a network of riparian and wildlife corridors among the area's five mountain ranges.

County supervisors voted against a competing proposal, a federally funded Habitat Conservation Plan that would have allowed development of some endangered species habitat in exchange for protection of other areas. Under the coalition's Sonoran Desert Protection Plan, money for the protection of open space is expected to come from impact fees on new homes, sales taxes or user fees.

Supervisor Dan Eckstrom cautioned that the plan may not guarantee protection for endangered species. "It would be wrong for me to second-guess what will happen once the plan and the process open up," he says. The county will hire a biological consultant to write the plan over the next year.

But environmentalists are jubilant. David Hogan, a staff member of the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity and a leader of the coalition, says, "The supervisors rejected the political agenda of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - the Bruce Babbitt agenda of only protecting endangered species with the approval of developers."

*Tony Davis