we are here we cannot turn back
soon we hold out our hands
full of money
this is the desert
it is all we have left to destroy

--Richard Shelton,from Sonora for Sale 
 


KEN SWEAT RAMBLES DOWN A DESERT WASH in the shadow of central Arizona's craggy Superstition Mountains. The 20-foot-wide arroyo is lined with a tangle of palo verde and mesquite trees, and the thick mats of spring desert grasses are flourishing in the clear March sunlight. The Arizona State University biologist pauses to point out a robust several-hundred-year-old ironwood tree. He seems surprised -- and delighted -- to see it.

The ancient ironwood and jumble of desert trees capture occasional runoff flowing down the wash, creating and nourishing a canopy that provides food and shelter for rabbits, deer, javelinas, coyotes and birds, he explains. The wash also provides a desert highway for animals, large and small, to move between nearby mountain highlands and the Gila River to the south. Although washes like this one occupy less than 5 percent of the Sonoran Desert, they support 90 percent of its bird life. "Washes in a desert ecosystem are the areas in the local landscape that support the highest levels of biodiversity," he says.

This is just one of hundreds of washes weaving across 175,000 acres of lowland that drain the Superstitions and wilderness highlands at the eastern edge of the Sonoran Desert. During summer monsoons, these same washes transform into raging streams. So much water sometimes flows through this portion of desert that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed miles and miles of flood-control dams to keep Phoenix's nearby eastern suburbs from being overwhelmed by water.

Tucked in between the Superstitions to the north and east and some 4 million people to the west, this stretch of desert has endured more than a century of grazing and years of off-road-vehicle abuse. But this expanse is special. Because it's owned by the state, it remains largely intact and has been spared the blade of the drive-'til-you-qualify development that has overwhelmed much of the surrounding landscape.

At least, it's been spared so far.

Over the last decade, as the Arizona growth machine overheated, the importance of this land near Phoenix has grown. There are four neighboring cities looking to expand, and powerful real estate interests eager to assist them. The 275-square-mile swath of state trust land -- dubbed Superstition Vistas -- has room for hundreds of thousands of new houses. Their construction and sale would generate hundreds of billons of dollars. And the sale of the land would generate much-needed cash for the state and its public schools.

But putting all that land up for sale at once play havoc with the local real estate market. Therefore, the state -- if it chooses to sell the land -- has little choice but to portion it out in smaller parcels over time. In order to maximize returns -- and avoid chaotic overnight growth -- a comprehensive plan for the entire parcel needs to be in place from the beginning. 

And that's why a group of urban planners, conservationists, elected officials and real estate developers got together in 2003. They saw a future for the state land that is sharply different from the kind of exurban sprawl for which Phoenix is notorious. If Superstition Vistas is built as planned, it will be a utopian city instead of a sprawling mess -- an environmentally sustainable network of villages and towns separated by swaths of open space. It will be a model, proponents say, for how Phoenix should grow into the future.

"Seldom in the history of the U.S. has there been a chance to envision the future of one piece of property, this strategic, and this close to a major metropolitan region," says an Arizona State University report commissioned by Superstition Vistas' backers. "Never has any such opportunity been coupled with public ownership and public education benefiting from the proceeds of development."

Critics, however, are less enthusiastic. They question the involvement of some of the same real estate figures who for years promoted unsustainable suburban sprawl in the Phoenix area. And they wonder whether the project makes sense -- replacing the unbroken chain of washes and cacti with roads and houses in a place that gets just eight inches of rain per year in order to create what is essentially a large-scale laboratory for testing theories of sustainable development. No matter how advanced the planning, the fact remains: Any development out here will suck up dwindling water supplies and bring yet more gas-guzzling traffic to roads in the smoggiest section of the Phoenix metroplex.

"This is just about selling more houses," says Sandy Bahr, conservation outreach director of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club. "That's all. It's the same old pattern of developing sprawl."

But a funny thing happened on the way to the real estate sales office. The hyperactive Arizona growth machine from which the Superstition Vistas project sprang has suddenly and unexpectedly run out of steam. The housing market collapse has hit the Phoenix area harder than just about anywhere else in the nation. Developers who were flush with cash a few years ago have been dragged down with the rest of the industry. And some of those hard-hit developers were the major players behind Superstition Vistas. Indeed, the first parcel in the project to be auctioned off has already gotten mired in the financial mud.

Optimists see this as just a temporary slowdown; the real estate boom that has defined Phoenix for decades will rise again, stronger than ever, they believe. They're convinced that it's more important than ever to forge ahead with huge planning efforts like Superstition Vistas. But others see the real estate crunch as an opportunity to do something radical. Here's this big, undeveloped chunk of desert: Why not just leave it alone?