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  • Marking 100: County is home to two national parks

    The Way We Were logo

    By Tom Prezelski

    This year marks the centennial of the National Park Service, which makes it a good time to remember that Pima County is the home to two national parks, the larger of which, Saguaro National Park, bounds Tucson on the East and the West. The origin story for this unique situation is a reminder of how conservation has been a priority for both Pima County residents and county government for nearly a century.

    Saguaro Park WestIn 1932, President Herbert Hoover used the Antiquities Act to set aside a little over 63,000 acres in the mountains east of Tucson as Saguaro National Monument. While the struggle to expand and maintain this, which would become the Rincon Unit of the current park, is an interesting story, it is the western portion of the park which concerns us here.

    Readers may recall a previous column which detailed the life and contributions of Cornelius B. Brown (understandably, contemporary sources largely call him by his initials “C.B.” and not his given name), a Kansas native who arrived in 1920 to take a job as agricultural agent for the county. Brown fell in love with the “intangible charm” of the Tucson Mountains early on, and soon took steps to work for their preservation against encroachment by homesteaders and miners. To this end, he organized the Tucson Game Protective Association, a coalition of sportsmen, academics and conservationists who comprised what may be the earliest open-space advocacy group in Pima County.

    Brown’s group reached out to Senator Carl Hayden, who, in 1929, helped them convince the Department of Interior to withdraw nearly 30,000 acres of public land in the Tucson Mountains from new homestead and mining claims. Then, they enlisted the help of County Supervisor Jack C. Kinney, who convinced his colleagues to lease this land, which would become Tucson Mountain Park, from the federal government for three cents an acre. As chairman of the newly created County Parks Commission, Brown would have a central role in the early development of what was then the largest county park in the nation.

    Not surprisingly, the mining industry was not happy with this arrangement, but they would have to wait until the county’s 25-year lease expired. They finally got what they wanted in 1959, when the Department of Interior announced that the area was once again open to mining. The local outcry was so great that the assistant secretary was forced to hold two days of public hearings in Tucson.

    The County actively supported keeping the park, with Supervisor Dennis Weaver arguing that in the face of Tucson’s rapid growth, the mountains needed to be set aside before they were “gone forever.” County Attorney Harry Ackerman spoke of how expanded mining could be harmful to public health and economic growth. Speakers “representing every type and variety of club and organization” included numerous citizens such as Brown and naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch. In a familiar refrain, despite a standing-room-only crowd who overwhelmingly opposed opening the park for mining, industry boosters decried opponents as uninformed and maintained that they spoke only for “the organized minority” and not the community as a whole. Though the hearings effectively killed the order, the position of the park remained tenuous.

    Keeping a promise he had made at the hearing, local Congressman Stewart Udall pursued legislation to preserve the acreage by handing it over to Saguaro National Monument, but this went nowhere. Stewart would soon leave Congress to take a post as Secretary of the Interior, where he would be in a unique position to convince his boss, President John F. Kennedy, to simply invoke the Antiquities Act to add 15,000 acres of the contested land in the Tucson Mountains to the monument. As for the remainder of the county park, Pima County acquired it piece by piece under a 1954 law that was written with the area in mind. This expansion continued for decades.

    In 1994 an act of Congress expanded the Monument and upgraded Saguaro into a National Park, fulfilling the vision that Supervisor Weaver expressed in the 1959 hearing when he spoke of wanting to render the land “untouchable” so it could be “preserved for future generations of Tucsonans.”
    Keeping a promise he had made at the hearing, local Congressman Stewart Udall pursued legislation to preserve the acreage by handing it over to Saguaro National Monument, but this went nowhere. Stewart would soon leave Congress to take a post as Secretary of Interior, where he would be in a unique position to convince his boss, President John F. Kennedy, to simply invoke the Antiquities Act to add 15,000 acres of the contested land in the Tucson Mountains to the monument. As for the remainder of the county park, Pima County acquired it piece by piece under a 1954 law that was written with the area in mind. This expansion continued for decades.

In 1994 an act of Congress expanded the Monument and upgraded Saguaro into a National Park, fulfilling the vision that Supervisor Weaver expressed in the 1959 hearing when he spoke of wanting to render the land “untouchable” so it could be “preserved for future generations of Tucsonans.”

    Pima County FYI is featuring a monthly column on some of the history behind the people and places of Pima County, written by Tom Prezelski.
    Prezelski is a Tucson native and former member of the Arizona House of Representatives. His first book, Californio Lancers: The 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry in the Far West is a finalist for the 2016 Latino Book Awards.
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