The natural inclination of miners and mining companies, when confronted by a hunk of desert, is to dig in it. Until quite recently there has been very little disposition to restrain them, partly because most people have tended to think of a desert as an arid, lifeless waste. Now the desert has won a passel of defenders, thanks in large measure to a remarkable institution called the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, located in Tucson Mountain Park, 15 miles from the Arizona city.
The desert's new status was dramatized at Christmastime when the Department of the Interior rescinded a September order that would have opened 7,600 acres of the 27,840-acre park to mining operations. The reversal was the result of a two-day hearing, held in October, in which more than 1,000 persons, many of them educated to the values of desert life by the museum, roared disapproval.
That hearing will long stand as an example of how effective the voice of an aroused community can be. Supporters of the integrity of their park crowded the hearing room in Tucson's Pioneer Hotel, eager to give testimony before Roger C. Ernst, Assistant Secretary of the Interior. Among them were representatives of a long list of organizations ranging from the chamber of commerce to the YWCA. There were those who came to speak for official bodies such as the Arizona State Parks Board and the Arizona Game and Fish Commission.
There were eloquent pleas by such men as C. B. Brown, the man who sparked the park idea in 1929, and Joseph Wood Krutch, the writer. There were fervent pleas by many private citizens, among them John Pupo, a former Pennsylvania coal miner who added that "there is a special place in hell for those who won't get out and fight for what is theirs." Meanwhile the city's two newspapers, The Arizona Daily Star and the Tucson Daily Citizen, had joined in the battle to save the park, one of the rare times that they have gotten together on anything. Resolutions supporting the park were put into the record by all manner of civic organizations. National interest was demonstrated by letters and telegrams from persons in 26 states.
January 18, 1960
On the second day of the hearing, testimony in favor of the order was given by various representatives of the mining interests. There was a small minority which felt that possible large-scale mining would be more important to Tucson than the effect on the park.
One of the main reasons for the intense public interest in Tucson Mountain Park is the unique museum. In the midst of the giant saguaros, 15 miles to the west of Tucson, a group of dedicated enthusiasts has created a national institution. It is growing so fast they can hardly keep up with it. More than a million Americans, at a rate now in excess of 200,000 a year, have visited the museum—which really should be described by some other word. The place actually is a hybrid, displaying characteristics of a museum, a zoo, an aquarium and a botanical garden. Its exhibits are designed to interpret the life of the desert, both to home folks and tourists.
Many of the taboos of other institutions are missing at the Desert Museum. Visitors get into the spirit of the place when they read such signs as the one over the collection of geological specimens which reads, "If you are interested, please handle." Even the necessary restrictions are phrased differently. The family pup is put back in the car without protest when the owners read a sign saying, "No dogs allowed for obvious reasons." Local interest is so great that the museum, which displays living animals native to Arizona and the bordering Mexican state of Sonora, has had to buy only a handful of specimens. All the rest have been brought in proudly by the citizenry, who come toting everything from horned toads to wildcats.
Once a helicopter landed on the museum grounds and a couple of grinning GIs got out and presented to museum officials a box containing three fine diamondback rattlesnakes. Earlier the museum had loaned the Corps of Engineers at Fort Huachuca some animals to use in their desert survival course. The engineers were repaying a favor with live rattlesnakes.
These are but a few of the reasons why the Desert Museum is expanding. Easterners who go there with a preconceived idea that the desert is a dreary place where wildlife is scarce soon change their minds. They discover the abundance of animals in the desert and they learn how they live. They see the many odd forms of flowering cactus and learn how plants and animals adjust their lives to the harshness brought about by heat and by water scarcity.
Furthermore, they absorb these things in the outdoors amid a genial atmosphere that reflects the attitude of the men who are building this oasis of learning in the desert. The motto of the museum might well be: "participate." Few persons are too old or too timid to get a kick out of tickling a young badger or petting a prairie dog. They can't even keep their hands off the cactus plants. A supply of tweezers is kept on hand for tourists who insist upon testing the efficiency of cactus spines.
The ingredients which transformed this stretch of desert hillside into a self-supporting institution were imagination, money, hard work and friendly cooperation. These ingredients began to boil soon after Arthur N. Pack and William H. Carr ran into each other at a meeting of the Pima County Park Commission. The meeting had been called to decide what to do about some decaying buildings in Tucson Mountain Park. Built with federal funds during the Depression, the buildings were little used and in need of repair.
Pack is a wealthy man who has long been interested in conservation. He and his father, the late Charles Lathrop Pack, founded the American Tree Association and the Pack Forestry Foundation. Years earlier Bill Carr, then on the staff of the American Museum of Natural History, had built the Trailside Museum and Nature Trails at Bear Mountain, N.Y.
As a direct result of their meeting, Carr was soon out making a study of the park. As he wandered among the saguaros, penetrated rugged box canyons and climbed the cactus-studded mountainsides, the thought came to him that this would be the place to build an outdoor museum interpreting the desert as he had interpreted the eastern woodlands at Bear Mountain. The Pima County Park Commission approved their plan, and in March 1952 the County Board of Supervisors turned over the old buildings. Construction got under way and several thousand visitors showed up when the museum was opened on Labor Day 1952. Since that day this mushroom in the desert has never ceased to grow. The 75¢ admission fee and funds from memberships are enough to pay operational costs, but members of the staff are always getting new ideas and Pack supplies the money to put them into effect.
Others have put up money for special projects. Contractors and construction firms have done excavating and building at cost. Something new is always being added. The most recent was a watershed demonstration project which tells visitors the vital story of Arizona's water problems. That casual meeting between Pack and Carr started a chain reaction that shows no sign of ending.
This unabated enthusiasm was manifest from the moment Photographer Dick Meek and I entered Bill Carr's station wagon to drive out to the museum. We were soon traveling a paved road which wound through a gap in the mountains and descended into a broad forest of saguaro cactus. There were thousands upon thousands of them. They stood 20 to 40 feet tall, many on the floor of the valley and others seeming to march up the mountainsides.
Although austere plants of simple form, each saguaro had its own individuality. Some raised their thorn-studded arms in supplication. Some seemed to beckon. Some stood side by side, their curving arms indicating they were engaged in some sort of cactus communication. Others assumed comical postures and some appeared dejected. At their feet grew the thickly spined chollas and many other desert plants.
As we rode, Bill talked fast and well. He told how the Gila woodpecker digs nesting holes in the saguaros, and then the cactus, in the process of healing the scar, builds a wall around the cavity which becomes like hardened latex. Twelve other species of birds nest in the old woodpecker holes, the woodpeckers obligingly building new ones each year. Some saguaros thus become desert apartment houses.
"That's the sort of thing we're trying to interpret for people at the museum," Bill said. "Just to display animals and plants is not enough. Their functions and their relationships have to be explained. That's what we're here for."
Passing through the gate we stood on a broad patio beyond which the saguaros spread down the slope and into another valley. The view alone was worth the trip. Six mountain ranges were in sight, the most distant purple peaks standing in Mexico, 60 miles away. Just across the patio were the winding botanical trails, the bird cages, the mammal dens and the visitors. In this place visitors are always doing something as well as looking. They lift hinged labels to find answers to their questions. They turn other triangular labels to read new chapters in the story of some strange plant. They pull handles, push buttons and turn on lights to see and hear new things.
We were no sooner inside the museum grounds than it became obvious that Bill's enthusiasm was shared by his staff. William H. Wood-in, who succeeded Carr as director in 1954, took us through his fine reptile collection. Lewis Wayne Walker, the associate director, showed the wheel-shaped bird cages he had designed. They are constructed so the birds can seek out air-conditioned areas during the heat of the desert day. Walker also took us outside the museum grounds to one of the fanciest wildlife photographic blinds ever built. Overlooking a desert waterhole, it was equipped with all manner of lights, wall-to-wall carpet and gadgets galore. Persons taking out a $10 membership in the museum have the privilege of using this blind. Thousands of pictures of desert animals have been taken there.
Everywhere we went staff members were eager to explain their ideas on new ways to bring the desert story to young and old. At one point we went back to the patio for a "demonstration." It turned out to be Hal Gras with a lot of young animals. Gras is the museum's Pied Piper. In a station wagon called The Desert Ark, he travels all over the state with live young animals which he shows to school children and other groups.
A crowd of children sat on the floor in front of him while their parents stood close behind. Hal hauled out a skunk, a badger, a ring-tailed cat and other young critters which he discussed and permitted the youngsters to handle. The demonstration over, we left the kids to pet the animals and went to see the saguaro exhibit.
Here the life and times of this mighty cactus, the largest in the U.S., were explained with living specimens, diagrams and murals. Their growth rate was shown. There were samples of the woodpecker nests Bill had described. We learned that in times of rain their fluted sides expand like an accordion to absorb water and then fold up again during dry periods. By pulling a handle I lifted a board on the ground which disclosed one of their massive roots. When it rains these big roots send out thousands of tiny rootlets in search of moisture.
Next we went down into a hole in the ground. This particular hole is the pride of the staff. Another Carr idea, it is a tunnel 158 feet long, 12 feet wide and 9 feet high. Inside the tunnel, visitors peered through windows to see badgers, prairie dogs and other live mammals snug in their burrows. When one section of the railing is pressed the lights go up to reveal the interior of a bat cave, with live bats hanging in their customary head-down fashion. Some visitors remarked on how lucky they were to have a bat cave right on the premises. Lucky, my eye! Lew Walker and his crew built this bat cave from scratch, casting rock surfaces and every detail in a replica of a real cave.
They found that sudden or prolonged lights made the bats nervous, so the lights come up gradually, give the visitors a good look and then can't be turned on again for two minutes. This arrangement doesn't seem to bother the sleeping bats. On one side of the tunnel visitors see the lengthy root systems of desert plants and by peeking through periscopes they can see the plants growing in the sunlight above.
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is the hub and focal point in this desert and mountain recreation area. It represents the talent, time and money of many citizens of this fast-growing western city. They take great pride in it, and it was not surprising that so many rose up to defend it against encroachment. To all those who worked to create it, the Interior Department's decision to revoke the mining order made for a happier Christmas. There is now under way a movement to get Tucson Mountain Park included in the National Park System as a further protection of its integrity.