Desert paradise

Foothills resident Joseph Cyr was in Catalina State Park on the northwest side when he took this photo of poppies and lupines.

If you like to visit Catalina State Park, thank Doug Shakel. He was the "spark plug" who did more than anyone to make the park possible.

Shakel, who doubled as a respected geologist and an outspoken environmentalist, helped kick off the modern environmental movement in the Tucson area nearly 40 years ago by spearheading opposition to a big development in an area that later became the heart of the state park.

He died last month at age 74, after a brief battle with liver cancer.

In the early 1970s, a Phoenix developer proposed to put 6,000 homes on 4,200 acres known as Rancho Romero, just northwest of the Catalina Mountains. The developer, John Ratliff, came to a Sierra Club meeting to lay out his vision for the project, which he was promising to make environmentally sensitive.

"Shakel stood up and said, 'Anybody who feels this shouldn't happen, meet me upstairs in five minutes,'" recalled John Leonard, another Sierra Club activist at the time.

Thus was born the Rancho Romero Coalition, representing about 20 Tucson organizations. In September 1973, it pulled off a feat that many at the time thought was nearly impossible: stopping a big development. The Pima County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to kill it amid an overflow crowd lured in part by Shakel.

Shakel developed the symbol of the bighorn sheep as a key reason to stop the project, since a sheep herd lived in that area (although it has since departed).

Over the next decade, prodded by Shakel and others, the county raised $4.5 million and pulled off a land swap to create the state park. It opened in 1983, contains 5,525 acres and nearly 5,000 saguaros, and draws about 160,000 visitors annually.

"He was the spark plug, the engine, the driving force in Rancho Romero," recalled Priscilla Robinson, another Tucson environmentalist, now retired, who worked with Shakel off and on for the next two decades.

"Doug was alternatively grouchy, funny, strategic, farsighted, occasionally down, but absolutely never ever gave up," Robinson said.

Born in Pocatello, Idaho, Shakel graduated from high school in Brooklyn, N.Y. He earned a bachelor's degree in geology in 1961 from Caltech University and got a master's degree in geology from the University of Arizona, after moving to Tucson in the late 1960s.

In between, he served in the Air Force for six years, leaving as a captain, recalled his sister and only immediate family survivor, Kay Cole, of Stockton, Calif.

After getting his master's degree, Shakel taught geology at Pima Community College for 27 years.

He was passionate about geology, particularly in the basin and range geological area covering the Sonoran Desert from the Gila River going south, said his former wife, Carolyn Leigh.

He loved science and learning for its own sake, said Alison Jones, a friend and a consulting geologist who will become president of the Arizona Geological Society next year.

"He was a geologist's geologist," Jones recalled. "I have been in touch with some students of his, and they tell me he taught them how to think."

Ed McCullough, retired head of the UA's Geosciences Department, called Shakel a first-rate teacher who drew students who would take any course as long as he was teaching it.

"He's the only geologist I've ever known who had groupies - people in geology and people interested in learning it," McCullough said.

One inspired by Shakel was Jeff Cornoyer, who took his class and went on his field trip through the Rockies. "Doug was really thorough - he stopped everywhere," said Conoyer, now a geologist for Rosemont Copper. "What also drew me to him was that he had a holistic approach to geology. You realized you had to know a little bit of everything -chemistry, biology, hydrology."

During the 1970s, Shakel and Leigh would drive around the Rillito River, taking "before" pictures of areas they felt would flood, recalled Leigh, who was married to him from 1967 to 1977. He crusaded for restricting flood plain development - before a 1983 deluge washed away condos and a big office building on the Rillito and inundated Marana.

In 1993, he fought successfully to pass a county riparian ordinance, requiring developers to take steps to preserve riverfront vegetation on their property.

He lost one key fight, however: his 1981-82 effort to stop a second big development in sheep habitat, on Pusch Ridge south of Catalina State Park.

"He would sometimes annoy people because he would tell them what he thought of them," said Gayle Hartmann, another longtime Shakel friend and environmentalist colleague.

He could seem difficult to work with, but he really was a "sweetie," Robinson said.

Service in January

A memorial service will be held for Doug Shakel sometime in January. People wanting to be informed of the arrangements can email

Contact reporter Tony Davis at or 806-7746.