The Resounding Impact of Our Three Decades in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve

For (officially) thirty years, the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy has served as a steadfast steward for the Preserve. Some may be wondering: What came first, the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy or the McDowell Sonoran Preserve? The Conservancy, founded in 1991, was instrumental in the formation of the Preserve four years later and its ongoing existence. For people across the Valley and beyond, the McDowell Sonoran Preserve has become a deeply meaningful and special place, all thanks to the Conservancy and its supporters’ work.

For the city kid living in downtown Phoenix, it’s an unforgettable introduction to Arizona’s wilderness — a far cry from the city’s seemingly endless concrete, asphalt and steel. Active local families use it for outdoor recreation and a much-needed escape from the everyday routine. Retirees contemplate a life’s work on the Preserve’s winding trails, binoculars in hand, listening for the characteristic tap of a Gila Woodpecker.

The scientific community uncovers a wholly new meaning at the Preserve. The slice of land and critical wildlife corridor provides a peek into the sometimes-unexpected vibrancy and resiliency of life, revealing the importance of species who call the Sonoran Desert home. It has become a crucial destination for hands-on research and educational opportunities, helping us learn why and how to protect these desert environments across the globe.

The Conservancy has worked tirelessly to ensure the Preserve continues to take on more meanings as children, students, families, scientists, retirees and countless others explore this picturesque corner of undeveloped desert — a precious resource that is increasingly hard to find.

The Roots from Which We’ve Grown

Our organization formed when a group of thirteen residents and nature enthusiasts gathered to discuss how to best protect the McDowell Mountain region from unfettered development. Already, they had watched as suburban sprawl crept into pristine desert paving over towering Saguaro and obscuring glowing sunset views. Enough was enough: The group formed an official organization, the McDowell Sonoran Land Trust, to begin protecting and preserving parcels of land in the Sonoran Desert.

After years of our organization’s persistent advocacy and small wins, the Scottsdale City Council endorsed a plan to acquire 25 square miles of land to form the Preserve, which earned local voter support in 1994. The Preserve was further expanded in 1998 to become the nation’s largest urban preserve at 30,000 acres. Our founders’ commitment had paid off — but the work had just begun.

In 2005, we adopted our modern name, the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy. The same year, we opened the first trail in the Preserve. We knew the expansive land area required care, patrolling, maintenance and more, resulting in a quickly growing Stewardship program. Today, our Stewards (which now number more than 700), are trailhead ambassadors, patrol the trails, serve as interpretive guides, lead youth and family programs and much more. They’re the eyes, ears and hardworking hands of our organization, essential to our continued efforts.

Our Greatest Milestones and Treasured Memories

For many of us at the Conservancy, 30 years feels like a lifetime. Since 1991, we’ve made enormous strides in our work, navigated tough challenges and connected with more visitors than we could have ever expected. Here’s a snapshot of what we’ve accomplished.  

  • Expanding our educational efforts – We started with an informal guided hike program, but in 2003, former Steward Fred Klein formally brought the free, planned hikes to the public with the Guided Hike Program. Additionally, we began distributing educational resources to Preserve visitors. Our award-winning educational initiatives include the Sonoran Sundays and Trailside Naturalist Stations. We partner with several local schools and community colleges for programming.
  • Supporting groundbreaking scientific research – We launched the McDowell Sonoran Parsons Field Institute in June 2010, formalizing our scientific research. In addition, we conducted flora and fauna surveys from 2011 to 2013 and published a three-year baseline ecological study to inform further monitoring and research. We’ve also partnered with geologists, archaeologists and ecologists doing work in the Preserve and beyond.
  • Completing ambitious infrastructure projects – Our volunteers opened the first trail in the Preserve in 2005. Since then, we’ve added numerous pathways including Bajada Nature Trail in 2009, the Toms Thumb trailhead in 2012 and Browns Ranch trailhead in 2013. The ADA-accessible, half-mile Bajada Nature Trail received a “State and Local Government Justice and Equality Liberty Award” from the Arizona Disability Advocacy Coalition in 2010.
  • Connecting with the community – We’re proud to have hosted many events to bring awareness to our work, including free public presentations at the Scottsdale Public Library since 2004 and even a research symposium in 2015. Moreover, the Conservancy Women organized in 2012 as our affiliate and to engage women in the community.
  • Earning local and national recognition – Our work hasn’t gone unnoticed. We’ve won several awards during our 30-year lifetime, lauding our scientific, educational and volunteer efforts. You can find the Conservancy and our founders in the Scottsdale History Hall of Fame. Also, in 2019, we were honored with the Service Enterprise Certification from the Governor’s Office of Youth, Family and Faith — a prestigious accomplishment, putting us side-by-side with the top 11% nonprofits nationwide for volunteer management and organizational performance.

We’re Looking Forward to the Next 30 Years

The land and desert are not static. Neither is our organization.

Our work is continually evolving to meet the needs of a shifting environment and community. One thing that has remained constant, however, is our gratitude. Whether you’ve volunteered with us, donated, explored the Preserve or simply appreciated our efforts from afar, we couldn’t have done it without your support. Reaching 30 years is nothing short of a collective effort, requiring broad public support for the conservation of natural lands.

Stay tuned throughout 2021 as we will explore the successes and hurdles that made us the organization we are today. We’d love to hear more about what the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy means to you and how it has positively impacted your life. Share your experiences with the Conservancy with the hashtag #MSC30Years to show your support and join us in celebration.