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for people who care about the West

The battle for Crozier Canyon


Arizona mirrors the paradox of the modern West - how to secure the future of tourism without butting heads with traditional, extractive industries. Discount for the moment the public lands, even Grand Canyon National Park, whose establishment may hardly be credited to Arizona. Theodore Roosevelt demanded that Grand Canyon be preserved, and he was a president from New York.

The question today is much the same as it was for President Roosevelt: Is the West committed to protecting natural beauty that is not owned by the federal government? Or does the West conveniently evade any responsibility for protecting lands controlled by private individuals?

In Arizona, that question has abruptly come to the fore on historic Route 66. Twenty-five miles east of Kingman, the highway enters a landscape of tumbled rocks and boulders; beautifully layered and shaped, they blanket entire hillsides and fringe the encircling mesas. Sunset recasts the cliffs, highlighting individual rocks in a russet glow. This is a landscape like no other in Arizona or the West.

A guide on the Internet lists Crozier Canyon's many historical and natural attributes, including Crozier Ranch, traces of the Beale Wagon Road and old Route 66. It is also the main line of the Santa Fe Railway, whose early postcards featured Harvey Girls suggestively perched among the rocks.

Even a century ago, Crozier Canyon was hardly untrammeled or "pristine." As the only natural pass through the mountains, it invited its share of fortune-seekers, settlers, cattle ranchers and developers. But none of them mined the rocks, laying bare the canyon walls. That is a recent practice - the one that threatens to do the canyon in (see story page 4).

Trucks and cherry pickers are growling now, hauling off the rocks to Phoenix and Los Angeles. Apparently, Sunbelt yuppies love to ornament their skyscrapers and housing tracts, even if that means picking the face of Arizona like a scab. Apparently there is a growing, virtually unlimited market for boulders as design ornaments for commercial buildings and housing developments. In the boulder-rich settlements of Kingman, Hackberry and Truxton, it is called "rugged individualism." It is our land, the rock hunters say; we can do with it as we please.

Tourists and all those who love natural landscapes will not be pleased. Germans especially love Route 66; it is their symbol of the West, thanks in part to movies and the television series "Route 66." But developers look down the highway and see nothing but a string of gravel pits. Consequently, tourists in the future are likely to take it only once, vowing never to return.

Of course, there is still Grand Canyon National Park, and northern Arizona is its major gateway. On the other hand, if there is no reason to explore and linger along historic Route 66, why not just fly across the canyon and get the journey over with? Already, hundreds of thousands of visitors do just that, traveling not through Arizona but rather disembarking from the airport in Las Vegas.

This time, there is no Teddy Roosevelt waiting in the wings to save Arizona from itself. As a natural and historical landmark, Crozier Canyon deserves our love and care. I have seen too many wonderful places die just because no one seemed to care. Crozier Canyon deserves to stay where it is, not be carted off piece by piece. There are more responsible ways to ornament suburban developments without removing native rocks and vegetation.

Alfred Runte is an environmental historian living in Seattle, Wash. He is the author of Trains of Discovery: Western Railroads and the National Parks.