Looking at Our Past and Present to Envision Our Future

Author:  Barbara Montgomery-Ratcliff

Mark Twain is purported to have said, “History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

In other words, we hear echoes of our past in our present-day experiences in our vision for our future. In this way, history provides a sense of continuity with enduring values, purposes and priorities, even as we create new ways of pursuing them over time. This perspective seems especially relevant for the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy as it celebrates its 30th Anniversary this year. Looking back with pride at our past accomplishments builds our confidence as we look forward to new endeavors.

Thankfully, two books are especially helpful in providing us with historical records of the Preserve’s early years. The McDowell Sonoran Land Trust, which later became the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, published the first in 2001: Historic Scottsdale: A Life from the Land by Joan Fudala. The Conservancy published the second in 2006, A Field Guide for The McDowell Sonoran Preserve, which Steward Frederick Klein edited. Together, the books describe factors from the past that are integral to what the Conservancy is now and will become in the future.

Some Key Aspects of Human History

Although both books cover many topics, their sections about the humans who have inhabited the McDowell Mountains emphasize the connections between the land and the wellbeing of its inhabitants. Discernable human history in the area starts at about 4500 B.C. with the “Archaic People,” who built rock and brush shelters, hunted wildlife and gathered cactus fruit and mesquite beans for food. The Upland Hohokam (600 A.D.) came next, who practiced “opportunistic farming,” used dams and terraces to collect water, quarried stone for tools, used the bow and arrow, made pottery, ground seeds and beans for flour, built ball courts and created the art we still see as area petroglyphs. Later, the Yavapai (1450 – 1865) dominated the McDowells. They were hunter-gatherers and used rock and brush shelters, roasting pits and stone tools, many of which the Hohokam had left behind. Eventually, the Yavapai had encounters with mountain men, homesteaders and miners coming from the East. The stationing of federal troops in the area resulted in even more migration.

By the late 1800s, a town called “Orangedale” was established, its name reflecting the citrus groves that were planted in the area. The name was officially changed to “Scottsdale” in 1884 in honor of Winfield Scott, who homesteaded 640 acres primarily for farming.

Early Ranching

In 1916, E.O. Brown, a prominent Scottsdale businessman, and members of his family began acquiring land along the western foothills of the McDowell Mountains through purchase and lease. He also purchased a ranch brand originally owned by Dr. W. B. Crosby (“DC”).  Brown called his 44,000-acre plot of land “DC Ranch,” differentiating between the “Lower Ranch” —spreading from the base of the McDowells north to where Pinnacle Peak Road is now, south to Bell Road and west to Scottsdale Road — and “Upper Ranch,” which spread south to Pinnacle Peak Road, north to Lone Mountain and west to Scottsdale Road. The DC Ranch residential community covers much of what was “Lower Ranch” and much of what was “Upper Ranch” is now part of the Preserve.

Brown created a successful cattle ranch on the land. He bought cattle from Mexico, shipped them to Phoenix by train, used a two-day cattle drive to bring the stock to the ranch, where they were fattened up on the land and later reversed the process to take cattle to market. Remnants of his Upper Ranch operations can be seen from the top of the Brown’s Mountain saddle and from Corral Trail, both reached from Brown’s Ranch Trailhead.

When E.O. Brown died in 1937, the ranch passed to his oldest son, E.E. “Brownie” Brown. When Brownie died in 1966, the land parcels passed to family members and business associates and, eventually, became federal, state or privately owned.

Scottsdale Grows and Focuses on Protecting Land

Soon after Scottsdale was incorporated in 1951 (population 1,032), the town began annexing land, including sections of the McDowells during the 1960s and 1970s and the area of the Preserve north of Dynamite Boulevard in the 1980s. By 1980, Scottsdale’s population had grown to more than 88,000, with many tourists visiting in the winter months. This influx of people put the slopes of the McDowells in danger of being developed.

Joan Fudala’s chapter “Saving the Land” contains a detailed description of citizen groups’ efforts, including the McDowell Sonoran Land Trust, to establish a preserve, setting aside land in the McDowells and the Sonoran Desert “for the enjoyment of all future generations.” A high point of this saga is the 1995 campaign for and the passage of Proposition 400, which called for citizens to tax themselves 0.2% in additional sales so the funds could be used to buy land for the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. A series of measures passed in subsequent years approved the selling of revenue bonds, purchasing land and developing trails and trailheads. This resulted in expanding the planned preserve to about one third of the City of Scottdale’s land.

Today, because of Scottsdale citizens’ commitment to the Preserve and willingness to tax themselves, the City and the Conservancy partner to maintain and protect a natural desert open space of 30,500 acres. The McDowell Sonoran Preserve is replete with native plants, wildlife and trails for visitors to hike, bike, ride and climb rock faces, not only in the present, but “in perpetuity” for “all future generations” according to its establishing Ordinance #3321.

And Here We are Today

The consistent support of the community and City officials for the multiple citizen-led initiatives from the early 1990s to create and expand the Preserve assures its strong future.  Additionally, it inspires the 600+ Stewards who give their time (56,000 hours in 2019) to support the Conservancy’s mission to “preserve and advance natural open space through science, education and stewardship.” Stewards volunteer in nine programs to:

  • Maintain more than 250 miles of trails
  • Patrol to assist visitors and monitor trail conditions
  • Greet visitors at the trailheads
  • Advise visitors on trail routes and safety measures
  • Lead educational desert hikes and bikes
  • Provide learning experiences for school children and adults,
  • Research the history of the area
  • Monitor cultural artifacts and sites
  • Assist scientists in their on-going research to identify the most successful strategies for managing natural open space.

Although care of the land today involves different methods than what the Native Americans and Browns used, each exhibit a sense of connection with the land and value its natural resources. As Joan Fudala states, “the Archaic people, the Hohokam, Winfield Scott and E.O. Brown…would be pleased with how their dreams are being carried forth by those who are now stewards of this land…those who realize our lives come from the land.”

Anticipating the Future

The history of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve and its Conservancy is seeded with values, purpose and priorities. These seeds took root in efforts to acquire and preserve desert, mountainous land in the McDowells and give access to visitors so they can appreciate the beauty and worth of natural open space.

The ongoing success of these local efforts have garnered the interest of others engaged in preservation efforts near and far, encouraging the Conservancy to expand its vision for the future to encompass local, regional and national outcomes. The Conservancy reflects “a culture that ensures, preserves and values natural open space for all to enjoy.”

Future histories, perhaps prepared in celebration the 40th Anniversary of the Conservancy, will tell us how this mission is advanced.