The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
In the mid-1990s, I was looking for a place in the Southwest to call home. Through friends of friends I heard of Cascabel, a rural community strung out along the San Pedro River in northern Cochise County. I was duly impressed with the community when I came to visit, and land was affordable. Done deal.
It was only after I had moved that I realized what a special, last-of-its-kind river valley I had landed in — with verdant stretches of cottonwood and willow that line the banks of the San Pedro River, supporting an abundance of birds and other wildlife. It’s the only one of Arizona’s desert rivers that has most of that ecosystem still intact. I fell in love with the beauty, the bounty of wildlands, and the warmth of the rural community.
I joined the nonprofit Cascabel Conservation Association just as it was forming in 1997, and our membership has since grown to over 150 people. We own and manage over 700 acres in the Cascabel area, allowing a neighboring conservation-minded ranch to graze most of that. We offer the opportunity to do a supported solitary retreat in the Sonoran Desert, grow a garden in a community setting, attend educational events, camp in a mesquite bosque and explore an important archaeological site on one of our properties. We also monitor the health of our local water and wildlife, and advocate for conservation of the Middle San Pedro Valley.
That’s why we were concerned about the lack of analysis that will tell us how the massive Villages at Vigneto development would affect our valley and our river. Vigneto’s proposed 28,000 new homes for 70,000 new residents, along with four golf courses, large water features and a fake aqueduct, would rely solely on groundwater pumping. It is entirely reasonable for our federal agencies to examine the impacts of that pumping and all other ecological and economic impacts of the project before issuing the required permits to proceed with development. It is also the law.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, the development has been green-lighted without the fundamental studies and assessments we all need to know how this would affect the future of the San Pedro River Valley. Everyone in our rural community should be concerned. We aren’t looking before we leap, and our future is at stake.
Because of our organization’s commitment to conservation, we chose, after much consideration, to join a coalition of six plaintiffs filing suit to hold the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service accountable to undertake a comprehensive analysis of the impacts of the proposed Villages at Vigneto development. We’re in court now to protect the future of our community, whose well-being depends on the health of the river.
Much has been made in the local press recently about a flashy new organization, the Southwest Communities Coalition. It seems to have conveniently popped up just as local and national news stories appeared detailing how the government agencies responsible for reviewing the Villages at Vigneto may have skirted the law.
Their executive director is an easterner in the Washington D.C. area, and their board includes a partner of El Dorado — which is based in Scottsdale. Sierra Vista Herald Reporter Shar Porier’s recent interview with their executive director left even the composition of the coalition’s board murky. She reports that although the Arizona Corporation Commission lists Cochise County Administrator Ed Gilligan as a board member, he was quick to say “I am not a board member.”
By contrast, the Cascabel Conservation Association was formed over 20 years ago by local people who cared deeply about the San Pedro Valley, and continues to be governed by a board of eight, all of whom have homes and manage land in Cochise County.
As local citizens representing a local organization, whose lives and mission would be directly affected by the rapid development of an instant city just upstream from us, we stand by our decision. Cochise County needs our federal agencies to follow the law and analyze how this proposed development would affect the San Pedro River, Benson and surrounding areas. Our community’s future is just too important to do it any other way.
Pearl Mast is a member of the Board of Directors for the Cascabel Conservation Association.