Initiative to study, restore mountain preserves

Cholla in South Mountain Park

Metropolitan Phoenix has the largest set of wild land preserves of any major metropolitan area in the United States, including the largest city park in the country, South Mountain Park. Mountain preserves are treasures in our own backyard, yet the pressures of urbanization, invasive species and overuse of certain parks threaten their long-term integrity.

Arizona State University's Central Arizona-Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research (CAP LTER) program in the Global Institute of Sustainability and ASU's Ecosystem Conservation and Resilience Initiative (ECRI) in the School of Life Sciences are part of a new initiative to address the future of these mountain park preserves.

They have joined with the Desert Botanical Garden (the lead institution), Audubon Arizona, the City of Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department, Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Department, and the Phoenix Mountains Preservation Council to form the Conservation Alliance, a collaboration to foster community engagement to study, restore, and promote the mountain park preserves of metropolitan Phoenix.

This initiative received a boost of support recently when it was chosen as an awardee in the Five Communities Project competition sponsored by the Center for the Future of Arizona.

“The Conservation Alliance believes that by working together we can build on the accomplishments of our predecessors and our own organizations to create a model for sustaining our park preserves well into the future,” says Kimberlie McCue, program director of the Conservation of Threatened Species and Habitats, at the Desert Botanical Garden, who leads this new initiative. “We are very excited to begin this important work and grateful for the support of the Five Communities Project as we implement our plans.”

CAP LTER brings a wealth of research on parks into the Conservation Alliance, which will be used when defining the major issues impacting the park preserves as well as in developing strategies. ASU scientists affiliated with the project have examined whether desert remnant parks, such as Camelback Mountain, have the same diversity of species as found in desert sites further away from urban encroachment.

Dan Childers, director of CAP LTER and professor in the School of Sustainability, notes that community support for the parks has been high but could change. “One key question we would like to explore is whether the economic downturn has affected attitudes toward land preservation for parks, a critical issue for the Conservation Alliance to address,” says Childers, who is a senior sustainability scientist in the Global Institute of Sustainability.

ASU’s ECRI engages scientists, land and water managers, and policymakers in dialogues that link science and decision-making. Helen Rowe, director of ECRI, sees the Conservation Alliance as an important step in conserving Phoenix’s mountain preserves for generations to come. “These new collaborations among researchers and conservation organizations will help bridge critical knowledge gaps, advance current strategies of ecological restoration and biodiversity conservation, and increase our understanding of ecological principles,” Rowe says.

The Conservation Alliance is one of five winners in the Five Communities Project, a statewide competition to find the best ideas for strengthening Arizona at the local level. Communities of all kinds were invited to submit their big ideas for moving Arizona forward on one or more of the eight citizen goals identified by the Gallup Arizona Poll in The Arizona We Want research report. Finding ways to involve citizens in both planning and implementation was a key part of the selection criteria. As an awardee in the Five Communities competition, the Conservation Alliance will jointly apply with the Center for the Future of Arizona for $300,000 in funding from national organizations to implement its proposal.

For more information on the Conservation Alliance’s vision, visit For more information about the Five Communities Project, visit