At Home in the Southwest

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The San Pedro – A River Challenged, part 2

“Imagine a place where you can choose your journey through life. Where you can experience a lifetime of possibilities all in one place. Where you can make new friends and bring your family together. A place you can raise your glass, work, rest or retire. A place where exceptional is an understatement. It’s where you’ve known you always wanted to be — The Villages at Vigneto.”

This photo essay is part 2 of 2, and begins here.

Small communities as with large cities desire to increase their tax base and total revenue. New jobs are welcomed. And as cities continue to increase in size and density, these last, remaining places that remind us of a time before concrete was the norm are appealing. But unchecked development is not the answer, now more than ever. Behind the door dealings, special favors and regulations ignored never result in lasting, positive change.

Continuous, nearly unobstructed development has been business as usual since the end of World War II. The very definition of progress has gone hand-in-hand with demolition and expansion. We continue to hold the highest mark of success in real estate is manipulation of the environment to suit our needs. This is not sustainable. Building a 70,000 person community where only 5,000 currently exists is enough to give reason for concern, but constructing an Italian styled village complete with water ways, lakes, and fake Roman ruins is selfish, ignorant, and simply does not makes sense. The developer claims the village will have no affect on the water table and surrounding desert. That is impossible. They know it. And they don’t care.

As with Gold Canyon and dozens more, pavement will be poured to make for easy driving. Walls will go up to keep the very wildlife out that we used to welcome. Neatly sculpted trails will invoke a sense of walking in the very wilderness that is fenced out. Open spaces will be designated as a homage to what was destroyed. Street names will again be the last tribute to the very desert we cherished, only this time translated into Italian. Vigneto has been met with national criticism in dozens of articles, reports, and TV coverage, some of which are captured here:

Hot pursuit of permit that ‘isn’t needed’ defines Vigneto development controversy
Tucson News, Jun 1, 2019 – Full article
“First, Vigneto’s developers say they don’t need a federal Clean Water Act permit to develop the site. They say they could and will build the project in a different fashion if they don’t get the permit. Second, they want the permit anyway.”

Whistleblower says he was pressured by Trump administration
CNN, July 9, 2019 – Full report
“In the summer of 2017, Arizona developer Mike Ingram’s proposed housing and golf course project in the desert was facing a road block because of a decision by the Department of the Interior. A field supervisor for the US Fish and Wildlife Service had determined that it was “reasonably certain” that threatened and endangered species could be harmed. But that decision suddenly changed following a secret breakfast meeting at a Montana hunting lodge between Ingram — a donor to President Donald Trump and co-owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks — and David Bernhardt, then the Trump administration’s deputy Interior secretary.

Following the meeting, which did not appear in Bernhardt’s official calendar and has not been previously reported, the field supervisor says he was pressured to reverse his decision, allowing the project to move ahead. “I felt pressured to reverse my decision … in simplest terms, I was rolled,” Steve Spangle, then a 30-year veteran of the Fish and Wildlife Service, told CNN in an interview. “I made a decision, which was my authority to make in Arizona, and that was overruled by higher-ups in the administration.”

Villages at Vigneto decision targeted by Grijalva
Herald Review, Jul 20, 2019 – Full article
“The backlash to change a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) opinion on the need for an environmental assessment to be completed before moving forward on a massive Benson development has been resounding across the nation.”

Housing development near San Pedro River gets green light, again
Arizona Public Media, August 8, 2019 – Full article
Tricia Gerrodette is a longtime advocate for the San Pedro River. “I still find it incredibly hard to believe that a project of this size has never had an official environmental impact statement done on it. And that’s just wrong,” she says. Gerrodette and other project opponents are concerned about how the development will affect the river, including depleting groundwater and damaging prime riparian habitat and endangered species.”

Lawsuit challenges federal approval of Benson project near the San Pedro River
Tucson News, Aug 24, 2019 – Full article
“The lawsuit is the latest in a string of suits challenging the Clean Water Act permit for the 28,000-home Villages at Vigneto project. On July 26, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reinstated the permit for the project that it had approved in 2006 but later suspended.” and “Steve Spangle, former longtime head of the wildlife service’s Arizona office, told the Arizona Daily Star this spring that he was pressured by his supervisors into scaling back how broadly the feds analyzed Vigneto’s environmental impacts.”

Court asked to vacate Corps decision on Vigneto permit
Herald Review, Aug 31, 2019 – Full article
“Earthjustice is asking the court to ‘declare the Corps violated the Clean Water Act by granting the 404 Permit without objectively analyzing whether granting a permit was the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative and without adequately mitigating the impacts of the 404 Permit or ensuring that granting a 404 Permit is in the public interest.'”

Feds reissue permit for 28,000-home development near San Pedro River
AZ Central, Aug. 8, 2019 – Full article
“The Army Corps of Engineers has given a green light to a developer that plans to build a 28,000-home development near the San Pedro River in southern Arizona, reissuing a permit that was suspended in response to a legal challenge by environmental groups.”

Villages at Vigneto will impact the San Pedro River. Not even slick PR can hide that
AZ Central, Sept. 27, 2019 – Full article
“The San Pedro River is the last free-flowing river in the desert Southwest and one of the nation’s environmental crown jewels. It provides crucial habitat for about 45% of the bird species in North America and is home to a rich variety of native wildlife. Millions of songbirds migrate through this birding mecca every year. The river’s health is critical to the long-term survival and recovery of endangered species, including the yellow-billed cuckoo and the Huachuca water umbel.

But the river is in trouble. According to reports by the U.S. Geologic Survey and the Upper San Pedro Partnership, excessive groundwater pumping has depleted the aquifer that feeds the river, creating a groundwater deficit that leaves the San Pedro River with little or no water to spare.”

The battle over Villages at Vigneto is much bigger than you think
AZ Central, Sept. 30, 2019 – Full article
“Because even if the nearby San Pedro is the Southwest’s last free-flowing river, and there has been plenty of study on how groundwater pumping may impact its flow, much of that data is piecemeal and concentrated on the Sierra Vista area. Areas further north are much more of a mystery. And that makes them a case in point, because many rural Arizona communities lack this sort of data.”

The magic of a place like the San Pedro is not in what we do to manipulate the land, but in how we adapt to enjoy what is here, waiting for us to discover. Javelina, deer, fox, hawks, owls, wild turkeys, bobcats, mountain lions, bear, snakes and 350 species of migratory birds remind us that we are the visitor. Take these few remaining places that hold some semblance of a natural world, and you have taken everything.
 

Learn more about the San Pedro and the annual river mapping.

By |2019-10-10T19:34:36-04:00October 10th, 2019|At Home in the Southwest|Comments Off on The San Pedro – A River Challenged, part 2

Counting raindrops in Cascabel

Rain in the desert is a welcomed affair. A light sprinkle, a massive downpour, or a steady flow for hours. It’s the contrast, the incredible change in temperature, aroma, and “electricity” that makes one want to just stand and watch it come down for hours.

This morning I awoke a little past 5 am to the rumble of the sky above me and the shaking of the construct below, an elevated porch on which I sleep in a tent every night. Pent up, potential electrical charge found repeated orgasmic release in the clouds and surely, to the ground as well, out there, beyond the mesquite that surrounds me.

I was thrilled by the abrupt awakening, the storm a distressed lover who yet unsatisfied by dreams moves into the day with the embrace of thunder. While I lay there for fifteen or twenty minutes, the cool splash of droplets that found their way through the window mesh, the storm was clearly, directly overhead. Sleeping outside, four meters above the ground on a metal deck connected to a metal house, I figure it was the safest place for me to be, or really quite stupid. At that moment my physics brain was unable to discern, so I took the safe bet, gathered my things and hurried inside.

This storm is the first I have experienced here, since purchasing this house and property six months ago. I am reminded of the splendor of the Buffalo Peak Ranch in Colorado where the boundary between the outside and inside of the cabin is thin, just enough to keep the water out, but everything else is welcome in.

Doors wide open on either side of my studio space, a pesky, bold grey striped squirrel who has marauded my garage, compost, tools, and engine compartment of my new car decided to venture in. He stopped about three meters to the right of where I sat, looked to his right, then left, spotted me and darted back out the door. I jumped up and pursued him but he disappeared without a trace. He hasn’t been back … yet.

Time to refill my tea and settle into the tasks at hand. Already, it is half past 1 now, the day gladly spent listening to the rain over Cascabel.

By |2019-10-08T21:15:19-04:00September 24th, 2019|At Home in the Southwest|Comments Off on Counting raindrops in Cascabel

The San Pedro – A River Challenged, part 1

This photo essay is part 1 of 2.

I am a new resident to the San Pedro River Valley, a place as magical and invigorating as any of the wilderness ares I have visited in the western United States. I feel incredibly fortunate to have come into land and a home here in Cascabel, to share this place with an incredible diversity of native wildlife and human visitors from varied backgrounds and interests. We have in common a shared concern for the future of this valley, a narrow corridor that follows the San Pedro from South to North, bounded East and West by designated wilderness, BLM and State land, and private parcels.

Each year, the Nature Conservancy hosts river walks to record the amount of water running at the surface of various streams across the US. For twenty one years, the annual San Pedro river walk has grown to more than 100 volunteers and a total of 300 miles traversed in the San Pedro and its key tributaries. Partners include the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Arizona Game and Fish, Community Watershed Alliance of Benson, and private land owners throughout the river valley, from northern Mexico to the headwaters to the Gila River, a tributary of the Colorado River.

I was fortunate to be invited to participate, following in the footsteps and guidance of my neighbor and renowned naturalist Ralph Waldt and valley resident Sam. In 2018, the 20th year of mapping, just 23% of the river had surface water, the lowest number on record. This low point is consistent with climate, water and drought data recorded throughout the Colorado River Basin. Records indicate early 2018 was the third driest in the Colorado River Basin historic record.

Prior to the 1800s, records and stories tell a very different story. The river was wide and meandering, rich in wildlife of an even greater diversity than now. The fish were reported to be over three feet long, and the valley lush with grass, not mesquite or cacti. Native Americans called this valley home for some 14,000 years prior, with the San Pedro hosting some of the oldest archaeological sites in North America.

But with advent of cattle ranching, timber removal to fuel mining steam engines, beaver removal to reduce malaria, and settlement came topsoil erosion, followed by the narrowing and cutting of the river into far deeper banks. Today, in places, the river lies more than twenty feet below its original bed, a reality check when looking back up to the sky line from where we walked.

Two decades of mapping, however, do show that conservation actions on the upper San Pedro are having a positive impact. The mapping information, along with USGS research, has helped TNC and its partners design an innovative, regional recharge effort to collect storm water and other water sources and put it back in the underground aquifer to replenish river flows.

However, continued depletion of ground water by developers, including the proposed 27,000 home / 70,000 resident Vigneto community near Benson will only further deplete the already heavily-taxed water table.

A recent University of Arizona study confirms that groundwater pumping is drying up Arizona rivers, as told by AZ Central, July 25, 2019, “Groundwater pumping has caused stream flow in U.S. rivers to decline by as much as half over the last century, according to new research by a University of Arizona hydrologist … research confirms that groundwater losses, primarily due to pumping water from below the surface for agricultural and municipal uses, decrease the overall surface water supply and have caused some smaller streams to dry up. This has a downstream effect that influences water levels far beyond the groundwater pumping location.”

This photo essay continues with part 2.

By |2019-10-10T19:51:40-04:00June 15th, 2019|At Home in the Southwest|Comments Off on The San Pedro – A River Challenged, part 1

Cascabel, a photo essay

Sunset over the San Pedro river valley - by Kai Staats

Birds at water hole - by Kai Staats Male turkey - by Kai Staats Female turkey - by Kai Staats Turkey with chicks - by Kai Staats

Sunset over the San Pedro river valley - by Kai Staats

My first two months living in the San Pedro river valley a has been an extraordinary, daily adventure in temperature extremes, welcomed sun rises and stunning sun sets; no less than a dozen species of birds just outside my door, and the daily visit of four deer to my watering hole. I have been surprised by the rapid taming of an otherwise wild turkey who decided of her own accord to tap on the glass of my glass door, to tell me when she is hungry. She then follows me around the house to the spot (at a safe distance) to where I feed her. Her sister (I assume) has a family of a dozen poults that follow her across the yard once every three days or so.

The humming birds discovered two new feeders in less than forty five minutes, the seed feeder however hung in disuse for nearly a week before being discovered. Hawks with four foot wingspans, ravens, doves, and an incredible diversity of lizards occupy this land. Myriad spiders, moths, scorpions, and flies find their way into my home, ultimately trapped on sticky boards.

While I am an avid hiker, backpacker, and wilderness explorer, I have to admit to being somewhat challenged in the transition to a home in this desert biome. I am daily reminded how cities filled with concrete, pavement, invasive species, and manicured lawns have nearly completely eliminated the original, native species. I have not seen a black widow spider in Phoenix since the first year my parents and brother moved there in 1986, and never saw a scorpion. Yet here, in Cascabel, both are daily visitors to both the inside and outside of this abode. I may be a member of the species that can dominate with tools, vehicles, and weapons on the environment, but when it is just me, my hands and feet and nothing more, I am the one who is vulnerable in this complex ecosystem. Far from the lush water way of the 1800s, the San Pedro river valley remains a reminder of a world that was … and we hope, will continue to be.

Deer in the mesquite bosque - by Kai Staats Deer in the mesquite bosque - by Kai Staats Cottonwood in the San Pedro river valley - by Kai Staats Mesquite bosque - by Kai Staats

Sunset over the San Pedro river valley - by Kai Staats North Cascabel Road - by Kai Staats Mesquite bosque - by Kai Staats Serendipity at Cascabel - by Kai Staats

By |2019-06-11T00:37:16-04:00June 10th, 2019|At Home in the Southwest|Comments Off on Cascabel, a photo essay

An unfortunate capture

Bat caught in a bug trap, photo by Kai Staats Last night was met with a very sad event. I fear my bug (glue) traps are a bit overzealous, having trapped a bat. Following advise by my neighbor Gilbert from a few weeks ago, I applied olive oil as an anti-goo agent. I was able to free this inadvertent visitor to my home by applying light pressure to each of his limbs using a ceramic chop stick. It took about 45 minutes in all. He (or she) was exhausted once free, and fell to sleep in the palm of my gloved hand.

Bat caught in a bug trap, photo by Kai Staats Following instructions I found on-line, I fabricated an enclosure from a cardboard box, with a warm water bottle in one corner and cloth to line the interior and sides.

She was reluctant to release my glove, but I coaxed her into the corner of the box where she wrapped her body around the bottle and fell to sleep. He woke to preen himself of the goo and oil, and was eager to drink from the water-milk-sugar-salt solution I prepared delivered in the fibers of an artist’s paintbrush. I could see and hear this tongue lapping the solution, like a very small dog. Four full brushes, and he was no longer interested.

Roughly two hours later, at 12:30 pm, she crawled out of a hole in the box I thought too small, and rested on the outside of the box, next to my bed. I lifted the box, he flopped around on the floor and then quickly took flight. I opened the door and out she went!

Bat rescue from a glue trap, photo by Kai Staats Bat rescue from a glue trap, photo by Kai Staats Bat rescue from a glue trap, photo by Kai Staats Bat rescue from a glue trap, photo by Kai Staats

By |2019-06-13T11:11:27-04:00April 17th, 2019|At Home in the Southwest|Comments Off on An unfortunate capture

Trimming trees at 2:30 AM

I am reunited with home ownership, in a most robust manner.

The french drain attached to the clothes washing machine was totally clogged, causing most of the water in the washer to shoot out of the connection for what was likely an under-sink garbage disposal. We learned the gas range and stove were never converted to propane, long yellow flames and black soot on the bottom of all pots and pans tell-tail signs of something not quite right. And tonight, our third in this new home, the winds drove the branches of the mesquite trees against the galvanized steel roof, scratching and screeching until I realized neither Colleen nor I would ever sleep. At 2:30 AM I pulled on my work pants, shirt, and boots and grabbed a tree saw from the tool bin. I carefully leaned the extension ladder against the large wood perimeter of the otherwise all steel frame and for an hour trimmed the trees that line the house on three sides.

The joy of owning a house again.

By |2019-04-10T06:42:54-04:00April 10th, 2019|At Home in the Southwest|Comments Off on Trimming trees at 2:30 AM

Finding Home

Towering House, Cascabel - by Kai Staats San Pedro River - by Kai Staats

For the past three years, since my return to the United States from South Africa, I have been searching for a place to call home. This has taken me from city to town to relative isolation, a study in the complexity of the definition of home and who I am.

If it were as simple as “I am a city person” or “I am a country person” then the path would be relatively easy to follow. But when I find joy in live music venues, a certain pleasure in hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and delight in live theater, I cannot say that cities do not offer a draw.

In those places where humans are as scarce as animals are in the city, I find that I open, my senses return to their full capacity. No longer am I tuning out, rather, I am actively tuning in, seeking, engaging, and absorbing all that is given. Bird calls, the rustle of debris with a gust of wind; movement of every mammal, small, medium, or scary is a reminder that I am a part of something that I cannot control nor can it be defined by measures of glass, steel, and concrete.

In the confine of a single month I was simultaneously envisioning myself in a large, warehouse studio in downtown Phoenix and a straw bail house past the high desert town of Oracle, two places so much opposites that I questioned how I could be attracted to both. Proximity to my parents, brother, and airport drew me to Phoenix while the passion that my partner Colleen and I share for the wild places, the splendor of dark night skies, and a craving for an analog community told me to wait … just wait … until it all comes together and feels right.

Through circumstances too complex to describe in this immediate story, I found myself in Cascabel, a place where ranchers, New York escapees, university professors, wild life conservationists, an astrophysicist, archaeologists, a medical professional and boat builder, bird watchers, artisans, and a filmmaker have each arrived through their own, non-linear paths. In Cascabel I found a personal connection to both land and people that feels rare in this digital world. In Cascabel, I finally found home.

The property is seventeen acres of mesquite forest and another forty that includes the confluence of Hot Springs wash and the San Pedro river. This second parcel will immediately move into the protective care of a conservation association. The house is a former mill that for a half dozen years in the 1990s generated mesquite wood products. Open, spacious, and naturally lit from all sides, it is a place that will never let you forget you are a part of something much bigger, just outside.

The San Pedro river valley is the longest undammed river in the American Southwest, with a diversity of mammals greater than anywhere in North America (or at least, that is what I have read). Some 350 species of migratory birds pass through twice each year, more than 500 including those that call this place home. Javelina (Peccary), deer, fox, skunk, coyote, mountain lion and an occasional black bear leave footprints for us to follow, a puzzle whose playing pieces change each day. I look forward to sharing with Colleen morning trail runs across gullies, down ravines, into the foothills of wilderness. On weekends, we will travel further, on foot, into the places you simply cannot find saddled atop a 4×4 nor fully engage from the air.

Most of all, after eight years on the road, most everything I own in storage, I look forward to wall lined with books, the rich sound of my home theater, and a place to explore working with wood, clay, fabric, and metal. It is time for the persistent digital interfaces to be set aside so that we can once again recall what it means to disengage and just … be.

Welcome to the Towering House of Cascabel! We hope you will visit soon, and stay for a while.

By |2019-03-24T15:03:59-04:00March 23rd, 2019|At Home in the Southwest|Comments Off on Finding Home

Counting raindrops in Oracle

Rain over the Biosphere 2 by Kai Staats

Rain in the desert is unlike rain in Pacific Northwest, the midlands or Florida. In Seattle it is anticipated so much so that it has become part of the folklore, the first thing someone mentions when you state you are visiting or live there. In Florida, the rains increasingly come not as a light afternoon shower, but as torrential downpours, the kind of storm that forces people to evacuate their homes.

In the desert, rain is a welcomed friend, the one that visits just a few times each year. Children rush out to meet her, the adults smile at the sound of her approach. The burden of the sun is temporarily pushed aside by cloud cover of her cloak.

When rain comes to the desert, it brings with it the generation of aromas that otherwise require the crushing of arid leaves between finger tips or stirring of debris underfoot. Sage, mesquite, and flowering ground cover entice human memories, stimulating something deeper than olfactory alone.

The emotions invoked are not unlike the embrace of a friend or caress of a lover, brought to life in the rapid transition from brown to green, dry to soaked. Yet they are fleeting, as quick to arrive as they are to depart. The aroma of the desert rain is diminished. We anticipate, but never expect.

By |2019-02-18T01:28:56-04:00February 14th, 2019|At Home in the Southwest|Comments Off on Counting raindrops in Oracle

Where Superstition welcomes the wary mind

Superstitions, by Kai Staats

Saguaro Blossom, Superstitions, by Kai Staats Spider Trap, Superstitions, by Kai Staats Wounded Saguaro, Superstitions, by Kai Staats Cholla Forest, Superstitions, by Kai Staats

Ocotillo, Superstitions, by Kai Staats As summer presses spring into a cooler memory, I find balance between the increasing heat and discomfort in the city with nights and mornings on the edge of the Superstition Wilderness.

Just one hour from downtown Phoenix, no matter if I arrive at dusk, well after sunset, or midnight, I am always eager to step out of my Subaru onto the rock of the turn-out where I frequently car-camp. The sound of crickets welcomes me to sleep. Birdsong wakes me to the rising run and immediate warmth that it brings.

Superstitions, by Kai Staats With daytime highs at 105F, the nights here remain cool. Boots on my feet by 6 AM, I walk cross-country, navigating between needles, hooks, barbs, and stones easily overturned.

Feeding the young, Superstitions, by Kai Staats

With every step comes a surprise, something new to discover and observe. I join wrens, hawks, lizards, chipmunks, rabbits, spiders and coyotes on the trail. There are homes made among the rubble of old mine shafts, in the hollow spaces of saguaro, and spanning the paths in hope of catching a small passer by. I fetch a light stick to tease a spider from its home, but it retreats back into its den when my large figure looms. A pair of hawks ride thermals, changing direction with effortless adjustment to the feathers on the very tip of their wings. A quick dive and recovered altitude suggests a potential meal escaped their talons, for now.

Campfire, Superstitions, by Kai Staats The only sounds are those of the breeze, a distant jet, and the rustle of needles, leaves, and stones under lizards feet as creatures scurry at my approach, or to stay cool against the warming sun. The aromas of creosote and cactus blooms mix with the ash of last night’s fire and I am, for this morning, at peace.

By |2019-02-18T01:29:46-04:00May 24th, 2017|At Home in the Southwest|Comments Off on Where Superstition welcomes the wary mind