But the group later handed off the ranch to a government agency, Arizona State Parks, which now plans to develop the quiet oak woodlands, deep arroyos and historic ranch house into an environmental education center attracting hundreds of people a day.
Some see a conflict in two environmental strategies - education and preservation - trying to coexist on the same land.
"It's really disgraceful," says Tucson attorney and former Defenders president Louis Barassi, who negotiated the arrangement with Kannally. "Intrusions into that property are a violation of the original grant, and definitely a violation of Lucille Kannally's intent."
Managed by Arizona State Parks as the Oracle Center for Environmental Education, Kannally's old ranch is scheduled to be transformed by the construction of a new driveway, a visitors' center, a residential education facility, bunk houses, scattered picnic sites and state-of-the-art composting toilets.
Kannally's will called for the land to be "perpetually used as a wildlife reserve." But park manager Laura Key says some people who knew Kannally feel she would have supported the goal of educating people about the environment.
It's difficult to know for sure. Kannally was the last of a family from the Midwest that took up ranching around Oracle, a rural town on the opposite side of a mountain range from Tucson. She guarded her privacy and ordered all her personal effects be destroyed after she died.
Although Defenders accepted a few other parcels around the time of her gift, the group focuses more on lobbying in Washington, D.C., and is not set up to manage land. Defenders deeded the ranch to state parks in 1985, via a short-lived nonprofit called the Arizona Parklands Foundation. In return, the state promised that the land would not be disturbed "in any manner which would ... degrade the natural habitat, environment and ecosystems of the wildlife and plant life." If the covenants are violated, Defenders can take the land back.
"For the last decade, I'm not aware of anyone (from Defenders) who's even been out to look at that property," says Tom Thompson of Oracle. Barassi says, "They gave it away, and then they went away. I think the Defenders of Wildlife is absolutely derelict in not enforcing those (reversionary) covenants."
In a phone interview, Washington, D.C., Defenders spokesman James Wyerman says, "We never felt like we had a responsibility to provide local oversight on the property. We put in the conservation easement to help ensure that the intended purpose be continued. But from the information I have, there doesn't appear to be any violations of that easement."
Some neighbors say the violations are obvious, going back to 1985. That's when the Parklands Foundation sponsored a glitzy celebration on the land, complete with foot-long invitations, nouvelle chow and then-Governor Bruce Babbitt praising the deal as a "superb gift" to Arizonans. There was talk of building a "people-oriented park" with sensory sound gardens, wind sculptures and astronomy interludes featuring laser shows.
After protest and some public hearings, what emerged was a scaled-back version of a people park, with construction scheduled to begin this fall. "These facilities have been planned to minimize their impact on the earth, right down to how we design water use, heating, lighting," says Key. She cites the toilets: They'll have skylights, with natural illumination sliding down reflective light tubes. "Even using the bathroom will be an educational experience."
Key says the state will develop less than 1 percent of the acreage. "Our goal is not only to make people more sensitive to wildlife, but also to teach them about how the natural world works. Those ongoing benefits far outweigh the impact we'll have."
The residential facilities, Key says, will allow people to "immerse themselves for three days or a week, and have an undisturbed environmental experience." The education will be so broad as to include organic composting and how to conduct a home-energy audit.
Many Oracle residents now support the plan as a soft-path approach. One, Anne Woodin, says, "Of course there are extremes on both sides. But to me, education is the important thing. If you don't provide it, then people won't protect anything."
Oracle native Bruce Woodruff disagrees: "Though state parks denies it, that property is a wildlife corridor. I've seen herds of javelina (wild boar) going through there, all kinds of animals ... They're not talking about the cumulative effects of having so many people visiting the property ... Some of these people have made environmental education into a religion."
* Tim Vanderpool
The reporter is a Tucson-based free-lance writer.