Artist City Chamber Endorses Wilderness in Arizona Highlands

TUBAC, Arizona, March 25, 2005 (ENS) - Support is growing in Arizona for federal legislation that would permanently protect as wilderness 85,000 acres in the Tumacacori Highlands on the Coronado National Forest south of Tucson.

In a unanimous vote last week, the members of the Tubac Chamber of Commerce voted to support wilderness designation for the Tumacacori Highlands in southern Arizona.

Tubac is an historic artist community, about 40 miles south of Tucson located near the proposed wilderness area. The group is the first chamber in the area to support the wilderness proposal.

“Given the outstanding benefits of wilderness along with the population growth we see projected for Southern Arizona, we felt that protecting the Highlands for residents and visitors alike was the best long-term decision we could make for the future of Tubac and our quality of life,” the Chamber executive committee said in a statement.

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Cliffs in the Tumacacori Highlands of southern Arizona (Photo courtesy Sierra Club of Arizona)
"Our natural landscape is viewed as an asset to living here - not an obstacle to economic growth," the executive committee said.

The Tubac Chamber of Commerce sponsors events throughout the year to showcase the area's local and visiting artists, and there are numerous art galleries in the small Sonoran desert city.

“Tubac’s artist community will only stand to gain from protecting the magnificent wild qualities that make it such an amazing area to live,” says Roberta Stabel, a representative of Friends of the Tumacacori Highlands and a former real estate agent. “This is a victory for businesses, for residents, and for wilderness. We’ve worked hard to educate business leaders that nearby wilderness draws many people looking to relocate who also want access to protected public lands in their free time.”

Before a vote was taken, Friends of the Tumacacori Highlands (FOTH) presented the Chamber with data supporting the benefits of wilderness to local economies, wildlife and hunting opportunities, and clean air and water.

FOTH has been building a coalition of wilderness allies for two years, using grassroots outreach to local communities, businesses, recreational groups, ranchers, and politicians.

Located on the Coronado National Forest south of Tucson, the Tumacacori Highlands is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the United States, inhabited by 74 federal or state listed species.

Rare and elusive creatures as black bear, peregrine falcons, elegant trogons, Chiricahua leopard frogs, and jaguars can still be found there. The Arizona Game and Fish Department has ranked the Highlands as one of the top white-tailed deer hunting grounds in the state.

Conservationists say these remote roadless lands should be maintained in pristine condition for the clean water, air and wildlife habitat they provide.

Congressman Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who has been working with FOTH on the wilderness proposal, is expected to introduce a bill for the Highlands later this session. Grijalva introduced a bill to protect the wilderness last year, but it was not enacted.

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Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva introduces the Tumacacori Wilderness Proposal near Tubac, Arizona, on January 10, 2004. (Photo courtesy Office of the Congressman)
The wilderness proposal is opposed by the Arizona Small Mine Operators Association which has been trying to build its own grassroots group to keep the Tumacacori Highlands at their present status.

On behalf of the miners' assocation, Glynn Burkhardt wrote in the "ICMJ's Prospecting and Mining Journal" last year, "The proposed area contains industrial and strategic minerals as well as precious metals that are crucial to the health of the United States economic and defensive security. These minerals include, but are not limited to, gold, silver, copper, lead, zinc, platinum group metals, uranium and rare earths."

"This area also has numerous 'gemstone' deposits. These deposits contain amethyst, citrine, blue opal, fire opal, fire agate, turquoise, malachite and gem silica," wrote Burkhardt, who calls supporters of the wilderness, "a few radical environmental groups that wish to close these lands to all but a select few..."

Numerous mining claims, small mines and prospects are scattered throughout each of the mountain ranges as well as the valleys within the area, Burkhardt explained. "This proposed wilderness area covers part of the world famous Planchas de Plata including the area of the Tumacacori Mountains where two of the largest pieces of native silver were found."

Burkhardt points out that the Tumacacori Highlands are now classed as a multiple use area of the Coronado National Forest system, and he expresses the concern of the mining community that wilderness designation would prohibit the exploration for minerals and their commercial or recreational removal.

But conservation groups such as Friends of the Tumacacori Highlands say the area is a national treasure that should be available in its natural state so that everyone can have an opportunity to hike, hunt, and explore one of Arizona’s few remaining wild lands.