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Tucson Opinion: Help put Benson on the ecotourism map
Tucson Opinion

Tucson Opinion: Help put Benson on the ecotourism map

The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:

Cochise County’s biological riches rival any county in Arizona. Within its borders are two of the most magnificent sky islands, the Huachuca Mountains and the Chiricahua Mountains. The last free flowing river in the Southwest, the San Pedro River, crosses the county from the Mexican border north to where it flows into Pima County near Cascabel.

My deep affection for Cochise County was nurtured during the eight years that my husband Tom and I managed Ramsey Canyon Preserve for The Nature Conservancy. And for many years, we owned a cabin in the Chiricahua Mountains.

The San Pedro River is often in the news because it is threatened and may follow in the footsteps of the sad, depleted Santa Cruz River just blocks from our home in Barrio Hollywood. Why, in 2021, when we have a chance to keep the San Pedro River flowing, do politicians and citizens not clamor to protect this riparian treasure for future generations?

Just last month, the Army Corps of Engineers suspended a permit that might have been a green light for a 28,000-home development in Cochise County near Benson and the San Pedro River. Conservationists are cheering, and some local leaders are decrying the decision. The Sierra Vista Herald accuses environmentalists of trying to “depopulate” Cochise County, while advising local officials to move on and identify alternate avenues to grow the economy than the Villages at Vigneto.

The charge that we conservationists want to depopulate Cochise County is a fiction. Do we want to keep water in the river? Yes. Are we going to sit by while a developer swoops in to plant a new water-guzzling mega city in a rural area where a river fights for its life? No.

In fact, for decades, conservationists have brought many millions of dollars into the economy of Cochise County. Birders, naturalists and hikers from around the world visit Cochise County to birdwatch and hike trails with spectacular views in places like Chiricahua National Monument. They are staying in local hotels and eating at local restaurants. Bird festivals such as August’s Southwest Wings in Sierra Vista bring hundreds of birders in the middle of summer to Sierra Vista to fire up its economy.

Why doesn’t Cochise County, and Benson in particular, take fuller advantage of the potential of ecotourism and sustainable development that could easily accompany it? In part it is because they listen to deep-pocketed developers from out-of-town who are slick marketers. El Dorado Holdings’ Vigneto would leave the San Pedro depleted, while a few investors, none of whom are from Benson, would walk away with millions in their pockets.

Instead of denouncing conservationists, the Sierra Vista Herald and local politicians should initiate new efforts to collaborate with organizations and individuals who can offer businesses concrete ideas on how to expand their reach with ecotourism dollars.

These are just two ideas for Cochise County leaders:

Gov. Doug Ducey is earmarking over $100 million of American Rescue Plan funding for the Visit Arizona Initiative, a plan to increase tourism. Cochise County should make a strong case for a share of these dollars to promote ecotourism.

The county should work with the Arizona Department of Transportation to build a state-of-the-art visitor greeting station in San Simon near the Arizona-New Mexico border. Many states have welcome stations that encourage motorists to pull off for maps, tourist information and friendly hospitality. This would be a great way to promote Cochise County and all of Arizona.

Benson has the natural ingredients to get on the ecotourism map. Its residents have a “can-do” attitude, exemplified by the late Winn Bundy. On a dusty dirt road outside Benson, her Singing Wind Bookstore attracted book lovers from far and wide and put Benson on the map. This same spirit can grow Benson beautifully and sustainably.

Native Tucsonan who co-managed Ramsey Canyon Preserve for The Nature Conservancy and a founding board member of the Friends of the San Pedro.

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