Visitors have been awed and inspired by Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve since its creation 25 years ago.
Nearly all those experiences share a common thread – they were shaped by a network of trails serving one of the nation’s largest urban wildernesses.
If the preserve is the wild heart of Scottsdale, the trails are the arteries that feed its soul.
The preserve’s 225 miles of trails provide entry into otherwise inaccessible areas; they shape our understanding of the desert and serve as the portal to adventure and memories.
It’s no wonder, then, that the creation of trails in the preserve is serious business – at times contentious, emotional and fraught with legal and environmental challenges.
As the recent Desert Edge debate proved, Scottsdale’s ties to its undeveloped lands remain passionate.
Those combustible elements were in play recently as Scottsdale moved to plan a series of trails and trailheads in a historically heavily-used area of the preserve northeast of Pima Road and Dynamite Boulevard.
“We thought it was going to be impossible,” said Scott Hamilton, the city’s natural resources manager.
The challenge, Hamilton explained, was restructuring the area’s hodgepodge of old trails that were “unplanned and unmanageable.”
The city had been down that road before.
Greg Woodall began hiking the McDowell Mountains while in high school in the 1970s. They were far from Scottsdale’s city limits and untamed.
His sister would drop him off at one end of the mountains on a Friday afternoon and pick him up two days later on the other end.
“You could be out there a long time and not see anybody,” Woodall said.
Both Woodall and his sister, the activist who would come to be known simply as Carla, developed a deep love for the McDowells and the adjoining northern desert.
They were among the first citizens to push for a preserve.
Their strategy was simple.
“How do you make people converts? You get them on the trails,” said Carla. “We ran people up there every day of the week.”
In the McDowells, however, there were few trails and no real trailheads. Preserve advocates led prospective supporters on tours that included bushwhacking through sandy washes and boulder-strewn thickets.
Once the preserve was established, advocates pressed the city to create formal trails so the general public could reach areas without guides – or destroying archeological deposits and sensitive animal habitats.
“‘No taxes without access’ became the community rallying cry,” said Hamilton, who joined the city in 1998 as its first trails planner. “The directive came down to staff that we had to get access into the preserve.”
Woodall and the handful of other early advocates joined city staff in plotting and designing the trails.
Even back then, planners faced a balancing act between providing access and protecting sensitive habitat and fragile archeological sites.
“We had to figure out how to get people into the preserve and have them enjoy it without destroying the place,” Woodall said.
There were also lawsuits to contend with and other legal hurdles, such as the successful effort to reform state land sale practices.
If trail building in the mountains was challenging, controlling access in the flatter northern deserts was a minefield of special interests and politics.
The area had been used by off-roaders, dirt bikers, hunters and others for decades. The region had become scarred and environmentally stressed.
The city’s first step upon acquiring the land was banning motor vehicles. It was like telling scuba divers they could no longer explore the Great Barrier Reef.
“They were super angry,” Hamilton said of the moto crowd and the expert mountain bikers who liked the wild and extreme conditions.
One of those was Jace McKeighan, a mountain biker who had ridden the area since the mid-1990s. He didn’t like the changes made by Scottsdale to create safer and more accessible trails.
“(The city) took out all the character that made them fun to ride,” he said. But McKeighan, a lawyer by trade, didn’t just vent. He went to the city with other users and urged officials to be more inclusive when it came to planning and designing trails.
“We said there were betters ways to do this,” said McKeighan. “The nice part was the city listened.”
Scottsdale put together what it called “working groups.” Officials invited hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians to not only provide feedback on plans, but to actually design trails and use corridors.
McKeighan participated in the groups. He also joined the private, non-profit McDowell Sonoran Conservancy and was appointed to the city’s Preserve Commission. Last year he served as its chairman.
The working group concept was put to the test when the city began planning ways to contain the chaos that was the trails mishmash northeast of Pima and Dynamite – unceremoniously dubbed the Phase 3 area.
“We targeted people who knew the area and used it,” Hamilton said. “We needed to consider everyone. If you don’t provide enough of what people want, you are going to run into problems. People will create what they want.”
Those area stakeholders assembled for a series of seven meetings. They were split into four teams, with each team consisting of different users – hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians.
They were given detailed maps of the area and told to identify the best corridors for trails. The teams also walked the area with city staff and professional trail builders.
City officials stepped back, anticipating emotional fireworks as users lobbied for their preferred corridor.
But something unexpected happened – every team eventually found consensus on where trails should be preserved or created and where old trails should be eliminated.
And when the teams came together, their individual findings were surprisingly similar.
“There was so much compatibility it was remarkably easy,” said Hamilton.
The reason? McKeighan thinks most users now realize that the preserve is more than an individual’s playground; it’s a resource that needs to be protected and understood from a variety of perspectives.
“Everyone who complains should be in a working group so they can see all the things that go into (trails planning),” he said. “It really is a complex process.”
The list of considerations is long and often technical: maintaining plant and wildlife habitat; preserving scenic views; protecting archeological resources; supporting a variety of users, but keeping access safe and sustainable.
It’s also a process that includes public outreach.
After the working groups submitted their ideas, a draft plan was created. The city held three open houses and launched a website so citizens could review the draft and submit comments.
More than 90 people attended the open houses and the web site generated 572 unique views. In all, 27 comments were received. The corridor plan was adopted by the city in November 2016. Trail construction and rehab launched soon after and continues today.
Plans call for the completion of a new trailhead in the area in early 2021. With it, major infrastructure within the preserve will be completed.
And then the city will begin another chapter in its preserve story. How many trails are enough? And how much access is too much?
“In a park, you want to attract as many people as possible,” said Hamilton. “In a preserve, you want to protect the environment as much as possible, but still have people enjoy it.”
McKeighan said that means the grassroot working groups might inherit a new task – devising ways to keep people out of parts of the preserve.
“Maybe we shouldn’t have a trail in an area at all,” he said. “That might be the best question of all. Some of these places should stay in their natural state and wild.”
Carla and her brother, Greg Woodall, agree. They’ve seen the Preserve evolve from day one – and they give the city good marks for walking the balance between access and exploitation.
“Places can get loved to death pretty easily,” said Woodall, now an archeologist with the U.S. Forest Service. “It’s easy for a chucklehead to tear up terrain.
“That’s the beauty of watching the preserve come together. It’s a special place and Scottsdale did a pretty good thing.”
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