The McDowell Sonoran Preserve is a protected area of natural desert habitat of 27,800 acres in Scottsdale, Arizona. It is one-third of the total land area of the city and includes part of the Sonoran Desert, McDowell Mountains, and natural corridors to the Tonto National Forest and Maricopa County Regional Park. The decision to preserve this urban desert came about as Scottsdale’s population and building construction expanded. Citizens formed the McDowell Sonoran Land Trust to preserve and protect the surrounding desert landscape for current and future generations. The organization was renamed the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy.
Scottsdale was founded in 1888 when U.S. Army Chaplain Winfield Scott returned to an area he had seen a few years earlier in the Salt River Valley. The Arizona Canal had been built in 1883 making the property good for farming. Winfield made a down payment of 50 cents an acre for 640 acres. The total cost was $3.50 an acre. He deeded part of the land north of the canal to the government because he could not irrigate it. The community, originally known as Orangedale due to the citrus groves Scott and his brother planted, was renamed Scottsdale in 1894 in honor of the founder.
A one room schoolhouse opened in 1896 but soon proved too small for the growing number of students. It was replaced in 1909 by a larger school known as the Little Red Schoolhouse. That building still stands today and is the home of the Scottsdale Historical Museum. The area was attracting many artists and architects during the 1920s and 30s, including Frank Lloyd Wright and his wife in 1937. He bought 600 acres at the base of the McDowell Mountains and built his winter home, Taliesin West.
As the city continued to expand, more land was annexed to accommodate the growing population and large ranches. Residents voiced their concerns about losing the scenery that was in their “backyard.” The McDowell Sonoran Land Trust was formed in 1990. The name changed to the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy in 1991 and the non-profit organization joined the Land Trust Alliance, a national organization that focuses on land conservation.
The conservancy began offering hikes through the area that would become part of the protected desert in 1993. That same year, the newsletter, Mountain Lines, was launched as was the fourth-grade education program about McDowell Sonoran heritage. The initial section of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve was formally dedicated in 1994. Support for this protected desert habitat rose with events designed to pique the public’s interest. A special sales tax was approved by voters in 1995 by 64 percent for preservation.
Since then, the conservancy has mapped over 100 miles of trails that hikers can either explore on their own or take a guided tour either on foot or horseback. There are educational programs for elementary school children and research programs for university students. The desert offers something for everyone whether it is history, geology, or archaeology. The McDowell Sonoran Preserve is a natural, outdoor museum along the eastern edge of Scottsdale. The McDowell Sonoran Conservancy watches over the preserve, protecting its desert habitat for present and future generations.
By Cynthia Collins