Cheers to land trusts


At last it’s December, a month when central and Southern Arizonans can finally turn off the air conditioning for good and revel in the glorious, 70 degree weather. Our beautiful desert beckons, and we respond in droves. Just in time, in keeping with this season of renewal and hope, there is good news to be had on the open lands front.

Much attention is regularly focused on land administered by federal and state governments – parks, monuments, BLM lands, and the like. But a recent census from the Land Trust Alliance reminds us that another type of “public” land exists and even thrives. Land Trusts are non-profit community organizations consisting largely of volunteers who purchase land or acquire easements for purposes of conservation. The purchases are made with a combination of donations, bequests, grants, and good old-fashioned fund raising.


Here in my state, trusts control a whopping half million acres. One of the older and more well-known of these organizations, the Desert Foothills Land Alliance, has been quietly acquiring private parcels of desert near the town of Cave Creek, North of Phoenix. This rugged area is home to one of the few perennial creeks in this part of the state, and is spectacularly beautiful. Many of the Trust’s lands adjoin state and federal parks and preserves, which together constitute an impressive amount of open land in this otherwise congested region of Arizona.

As with all open land, the issue of access is a thorny one. Much of the Desert Foothills trust land is open to hiking and other uses, but some is restricted and some is closed, due to environmental sensitivity or agreements with donors. This can raise some hackles. One reader of an Arizona Republic article about the recent census attacked the Alliance members as “A bunch of elitist white people locking up the open space for thier [sic] cocktail party friends.” Indeed, the North Phoenix area is home to many wealthy and influential people; no doubt this has contributed to the success of the organization. And, the quasi-private nature of trusts does allow them to operate with a certain amount of autonomy. They are free from much of the bureaucratic process that attends government efforts to preserve or change the status of public lands.

This alternative model, though not perfect, offers an opportunity to bridge gaps in land conservation, and opens entry to magnificent places that were previously in private hands and not accessible at all. I say “cheers!” to that.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University.

Image of Cave Creek area courtesy Flickr user Take a Hike Arizona

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