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Tucson Weekly Sierra Showdown

The People Of Sierra Vista Need To Fight A Proposed Subdivision -- Even If It Means Agreeing With The Center for Biological Diversity.

By Jeff Smith

AUGUST 9, 1999:  NOBODY LIKES TO be treated like a hillbilly. Even your genuine, flea-scratching, cousin-marrying, banjo-picking, corn-holing hillbilly prefers to think of himself as a mountain man. Ergo, when one approaches an exemplar of the genus Rusticus Americanus, one is well-advised to go in the spirit of mutual respect. Regardless of your sophistication in the mores of modern society, when you enter another person's milieu you come as an innocent, untutored in local custom and unfranchised in local policy.

When in Rome -- or in the hills -- either do as the hillbillies do or, if it becomes an issue of biblical, statutory, dietary or biological canon, shut up and behave like a respectful guest.

Certain areas of the country are especially sensitive to the implicit criticism of their more cosmopolitan neighbors, and resentful of attempts by people perceived as auslanders (literally, outsiders) to dictate terms of public policy to them. Generally such pockets of stubborn resistance to the civilizing effects of modern urban experience are found in isolated backwaters unreached by the arteries of commerce and communication.

Occasionally, however, you come across a city like Sierra Vista, sitting astride a paved highway, served by several television and radio stations, adjacent to a modern military post and stocked with every fast-food franchise known to humanity, that still seems determined to resist the best efforts of highly educated people from Tucson to tell them how to conduct their affairs. How can this be?

Perhaps the missionaries are arrogant assholes, determined to school the heathens in the True Faith if it requires flaying them to flesh and bone to accomplish the mission.

Such an issue of style over substance is, I believe, at the heart of a dangerous conflict between the City of Sierra Vista and an array of environmentalists whose higher mission is to preserve and protect the San Pedro River.

The Sierra Vista City Council recently approved the preliminary stages of a plan to build 7,000 new homes on 2,000 acres of land in the southeast area of the city. Representatives of various green organizations spoke against the plan at the Council meeting, and were chagrined not only to see the plan approved, but by a further proposal by a resentful and pro-growth member of the Council to require in future that all persons addressing Council meetings identify their place of residence. The better to tell the homies from the auslanders.

For years, more like decades, the wider world has tended to look down its patrician nose at Sierra Vista. It began as a scattering of bars, brothels and gas stations to serve and service the soldiers who fled Ft. Huachuca nights and weekends. It grew -- some say like cancer, some say like weeds -- into a strip mall of a town, east along Fry Boulevard. It was unlovely and impermanent-looking and peopled by a transient body impolitic, but eventually it took root and began growing both north and south and permanent. Sierra Vista came to have a sense of self and of pride. But still it got no respect.

It was growth that made Sierra Vista something more than a place for soldiers to get drunk or laid and fueled for the trip home, so growth grew to be an article of faith for this community. Hey, every other city and town in Arizona and most of America is guilty by degrees of the same thing; most of us like to think we've outgrown our growth-dependence, and can't even appreciate the irony of that.

Sierra Vista likes to grow and doesn't like to be told that its deficit spending of limited groundwater resources not only drains watersheds to the west of the city, but threatens to dry up the nearby San Pedro River, and perhaps kill off the magnificent stand of cottonwoods, desert willows and other greenery that lines the last of Southern Arizona's free-flowing rivers.

It doesn't help when pencilneck geeks from the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity show up in Sierra Vista and treat people from the high and mighty to the low and slow as though they were extras from the set of Deliverance.

"Boy you shore got a purty mouth. You say yore name was what? Suckling?"

Never mind.

Yes, it would be a disaster for Sierra Vista to proceed with the 7,000 proposed new houses on the 2,000-acre tract under current consideration. The area is already over-drawing about 7,000 acre-feet per year from a water table which is not entirely mapped and understood, but which certainly sucks the life out from under the San Pedro. And the San Pedro riparian area is a federal preserve and a precious, irreplaceable resource.

Try this little trick: Close your eyes and picture a brand-new subdivision sprawling across newly bulldozed hills, each beige stuccoed house the mirror-image of the floorplan to left and right and fore and aft of it. Maybe a little stick of a mulberry tree fighting to take root in the mini-yard. Now refocus your imagination to a green sweep of rustling leaves and the linen bark of rank upon rank of cottonwood trees, lush grasses spreading at their feet, a sapphire blue sky above their towering, century-old, up-reaching branches. One took a snap decision by a city council and a few months to throw up, the other is the work of miraculous Mother Nature working over centuries. The first will be in disrepair and decay in a few decades, while the other -- if lost -- won't be seen again here in 10 lifetimes.

Which would you rather have in your backyard? Which do you think will bring the greatest benefit to your community? Does the term tourism ring any bells?

Why hell yes, it does. Cash register bells.

I personally have a problem with any attempt by the Sierra Vista City Council to discourage the free exercise of First Amendment rights by representatives of the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity or any other group of outside agitating tree-huggers. I have no problem whatsoever if they should make it city policy to tar and feather these folks after they've spoken their piece. Unless they can learn to keep a civil tongue in their heads and quit being quite so condescending and speaking in that tone.

This is too important an issue to piss away a river or a community's future prospects, over a matter of insulted civic pride versus insufferable elitism.

I urge the good folk of Sierra Vista to take the long view. The one you can plainly see from the eastern city limits. The one where a river runs through it.

Picture flights of Canada geese heading north. Swarms of hummers heading toward Ramsey Canyon. Flocks of snowbirds flapping along Fry Boulevard. Hear the honking, the humming...the ringing of the till.


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