It Just Makes Sense

“It just makes sense,” he said. “It’s just intuitive to protect it.”

He paused, then continued.

“Because it’s beautiful — and natural,” he said.

– Don Riepe, the “Guardian of Jamaica Bay”

The above sentiment resonates with all of us at MSC. The City of Scottsdale and the McDowell Sonoran Preserve share an interesting issue with a place across the country – Jamaica Bay, a natural wetlands area, at the edge of Queens and Brooklyn, New York. Both the organizations and individuals who steward Jamaica Bay and MSC seek to protect natural places on the edges of metropolitan areas. The Bay’s story is quickly circulating as an example of successful environmental cleanup and lasting preservation. It is so close to the city, it can be reached by subway. Given its place and history of abundant pollution, this effort is remarkable.

The Bay has gone from being a raw sewage outlet, a place for dumping dead animals, and a repository for toxic industrial waste, to a slowly but surely recovering wetland habitat.

With the help of organizations like the Natural Resource Defense Council and committed citizens, the condition of this habitat continues to improve. Where there was once only toxic waste, there are now birds, seals, oysters and sea grass. New Yorkers flock to this area to enjoy a peaceful place with the backdrop of the New York skyline.

Researchers believe that this could be a testing ground for the issues that face natural places on the borders of cities. While protection efforts are slow-moving, the outlook is positive. This is great news for cities with nearby natural lands at their borders, such as New York City and our very own City of Scottsdale, and hopefully encouragement for many other cities to understand the balance between preservation and urban growth.

For the full story: – “Jamaica Bay, Wild Place on the Edge”, By Alan Feuer, New York Times, July 29, 2011

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation, Environment | Leave a comment

Evolution Driven By City Living

When we think of a city’s effect on the environment, we often think of pollution, habitat destruction and extinction. These are, indeed, realistic outcomes of growing urbanization. But recent studies in urban ecology – the practice of studying natural ecosystems in or near cities – suggest that in some instances, life adapts to otherwise unfavorable living conditions.

The study of urban ecology, as highlighted in the New York Times article “Empire of Evolution” (see below), is a relatively new field. While most ecologists are studying open plains and distant mountains, many are beginning to research how the pressures of urbanization affect nature.

Researchers are finding that pollution drives change, having an impact so significant that it can affect an organism’s DNA. The rapid pace of this change is what they find most shocking. Evolution, generally considered to take hundreds of thousands of years, is accelerated to take just a few short generations in some species. In a 1989 study on mud worms in the heavily polluted Hudson River, scientists discovered that the worms had developed a resistance to cadmium (a toxic metal found in industrial materials). After the EPA cleaned this industrial waste from the river, researchers discovered that the worms were once again vulnerable to cadmium in nine generations, just a few short years.

The implications of rapid evolution driven by urban pressures raise questions about our own McDowell Sonoran Preserve. Because Scottsdale is in such close proximity to this living treasure, filled with a variety of plants and animals, are we forcing a fundamental change to their genetic makeup through the urban heat island we’ve created, and the resulting pollution? For those species who cannot adapt quickly enough, will we lose them completely? These factors are being taken into consideration by the scientists and volunteers of the McDowell Sonoran Field Institute and will no doubt influence conservation efforts and decision-making today and in the future.

To read more:  – “Empire of Evolution, ” by Carl Zimer, New York Times, July 25th, 2011

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Conserving Nature as Our Cities Grow

A view of the city from Windgate Pass trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve

“…In 1870 25 percent of the U.S. population lived in cities, and 75 percent lived in the country or in small towns. Now it is about the reverse—80 percent urban, 20 percent rural. Those statistics should not surprise most people; it’s old news that the world is racing toward urbanization. But it’s worth paying attention to the profound social and ecological implications of that shift.” –Peter Karieva, “Urban Conservation: Conservation should be a walk in the park, not just the woods,” Nature Conservancy Magazine

Rapid urbanization is something we see everyday, the population of Scottsdale exploded, moving out into pristine desert. Preserving open space and protecting the health of ecosystems, while dealing with the reality of growing cities, is a delicate balancing act that we are struck with globally and certainly locally in the City of Scottsdale. This need for urban conservation to combat the pressures of a growing city, was the basis for the creation of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

Until recently, conservation in urbanized areas was rarely practiced or even thought of in the environmental protection field. Remote wilderness areas far outside of city limits were always a priority for conservationists. While protection of these places is obviously important, we should not overlook preserving nature in urban settings. MSC puts this idea into practice everyday by protecting Preserve lands in what may soon be the largest urban preserve in the country.

Urban conservation not only protects the non-human inhabitants of an area from the pressures of expanding cities, but it also improves the quality of life for city-dwellers. Natural spaces offer clean air, clean water, significantly reduce the heat island effect ( some studies suggest a reduction of even 9 degrees Fahrenheit), and provide places of respite. Also, this kind of conservation allows access to nature, something that may be impossible for many city inhabitants, if we only focus on protecting remote places.

By focusing on conservation in or near urbanization, we protect nature and our cities. By all means, a win-win.

Nearby homes on the edge of the Preserve

To read more about this:

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An MSC Intern’s Story, Part II- The Joys of Flora Sampling!

My name is Brenton Scott and I am a senior undergraduate student at Arizona State University, currently finishing a B.S. in Conservation Biology and Ecological Sustainability with an emphasis on plant ecology and conservation.

This summer, I was granted the opportunity to catalog and mount flora specimens for MSC at the ASU Vascular Plant Herbarium. The herbarium houses plant specimens collected throughout the world that date as far back as 100 years. The McDowell Sonoran Conservancy’s flora catalog is now part of this extensive collection. The specimens were collected this spring in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve as part of an ongoing ecological study of the flora and fauna that inhabit the area. This kind of study has never been done before in the area, so we were prepared for some exciting discoveries. In addition to herbarium work, I also assisted in surveying the dominant vegetation of certain trails in the Preserve, i.e. the plants that one may see a lot of while on a leisurely hike. This data will help present and future conservation efforts in documenting the rich biological diversity in the Preserve.

Here is a short video of my work at the ASU herbarium:

Despite sparse rains this spring, we were able to gather a total of 220 different plants. Under the guidance of Steve Jones, the principal investigator for the flora survey, plants were collected within the Preserve by careful, non-invasive means, so as not to disturb the greater biological community. When a plant is collected, it is important to include as many of the features of the plant as possible to aid in identification of the particular species. For the majority of collections this includes: a description of the location of the plant, GPS coordinates, flower, leaves, stems, bark, fruit or seed, and roots (if possible). Furthermore, extreme care was taken by all volunteers to collect only plants in good abundance to make sure particular species collected survive in the future.

Steve identified all the specimens using a flow chart and his extensive knowledge of Sonoran desert flora. In the field, each team member kept a notebook to document their collections. Along with GPS coordinates, surrounding vegetation, geographical features and other important details about the specimen that may fade with drying – like color – were noted with each collection.

Collected plant specimens were arranged and pressed between blotter paper to dry and absorb any oils or dyes in the plant. Patience and a light touch were often required when arranging a fresh specimen. We stacked and compacted the collections in field presses and left them to dry for several days in a drying press. After each collection trip, Steve identified and entered collections into a database called SEINet. This database is a collaboration between ASU and the Desert Botanical Gardens. It serves as a great way for the public and researchers to track what has been found in certain areas. Finally, specimens are frozen before entering the herbarium (to kill off any plant diseases or insects that may stay on the specimen). Check out our running checklist on SEINet:

Here is where my work began with the 220 collected specimens. First, I entered the notes from our field books into a database file and uploaded them into the ASU herbarium software to print labels for the specimens. I then fastened the labels to herbarium paper along with a paper pouch for pieces that not fit within the mounting area. The mounting of plant specimens is not particularly difficult but does need dexterous hands and a lot of patience – two things that, fortunately, I have! When mounting MSC’s plants, I carefully removed specimens from their blotter paper and applied special herbarium glue to the less desirable side of the specimen. Then, I glued it to herbarium paper and a label attached with information on the collected species. Stubborn or very woody specimens often need extra glue ‘straps’ to secure them. After mounting, I photographed each and assigned a barcode for the particular collection and a second barcode for the image. Lastly, I stored the finished products safely in the herbarium, where they will serve as an official scientific record of the flora found in the Preserve and aid future research and conservation efforts. Believe it or not, this was incredibly fascinating and fun work to do for the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy.

Glue is drying on this specimen. Almost done!

The "final product" of a collected specimen, mounted at the ASU herbarium.

Posted in Arizona, Conservation, Education, Research, Sonoran Desert | 2 Comments

An MSC Intern’s Story, Part III- Discovering the Desert

I am an Arizona native – a true desert rat – however, I don’t think I had fully earned this title until interning this summer with the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy. I heard about the McDowell Sonoran Field Institute’s flora survey taking place right down the street from my house, in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, in early spring. Being an avid Sonoran plant enthusiast and Biology student, I was thrilled to go exploring through the desert in search of new and exciting plants. Through the training, I learned new skills in plant specimen collection and native plant identification, and became acquainted with amazing, devoted and knowledgeable volunteers. After the flora catalog project came to an end, in the heat of summer, this positive experience inspired me to stay on as an intern throughout the summer to work on an ecology research project. This project involved trekking along approximately 30 miles of desert trails, sometimes through brutal heat, and learning to appreciate the wildlife and plants that call the McDowell Mountains and surrounding desert their home.

Although I do not recommend hiking in July, I can say that if you are like me, and have yet to visit the trails that cover the Preserve, you are truly missing out! (McDowell Sonoran Month is just around the corner, so be ready to hike starting October 1st!) I have seen bugs that range from colorful blister beetles, to big and mighty tarantula hawk wasps; this desert is full of a variety of life. I collected plants that were fragile and sweet like the mariposa lily, to the poisonous and unpleasant noseburn. With its almost microscopic stinging hairs, I unfortunately found out firsthand that it has a fitting name. I have been able to spy on hawk’s nests hidden in giant saguaros, and marvel at the design of massive pack rat dens. The lizards, it seems, are everywhere; with whiptails curiously darting across the trails and baby plateau lizards looking at you with a tilt of the head and one sharp eye. Perhaps my favorite lizard sighting was of a large female chuckwalla. She was napping peacefully in a Palo Verde tree after snacking on some of the first of this season’s yellow blossoms.

Female chuckwalla lizard napping after an afternoon snack.

Although these residents offer a great array of treasures, the mountains themselves also have a lot to offer. I have seen, what seems to me to be, the largest rock salad in Arizona, with changes so extreme from one side of a mountain to another that I often think my eyes are tricking me. Giant granite boulders and expansive quartz veins are sprinkled throughout the Preserve.

The most rewarding discovery my work gave me though, had to be on one of the hardest trails, Tom’s Thumb. We tackled this adventure during the lovely 100-degree days of June. The switchbacks and step-like climbs of this trail almost had me beat. We turned a corner and I thought I had to be imagining the sound of running water. Instead, a running spring with lush riparian plants, did indeed lay dead ahead. Bees, wasps and butterflies all congregated around the water, giving a beautiful display of color and grace. Nearly after we walked past the spring, my partner Kaitlyn even found a toad, probably the last thing you would think to see in the heat of a summer Sonoran Desert day!

Small toad we found on our exploration of the spring.

These sightings made hiking the trails well worth the effort, and made me fall in love with the Sonoran desert all over again. Seeing the McDowell’s from the freeway in your car may be a beautiful sight, and a nice distraction from the traffic, but they deserve a closer look. They may just make a desert rat out of you too!

Posted in Biodiversity, McDowell Mountains, Nature, Research | Tagged | 1 Comment

An MSC Intern’s Story, Part I – Arizona Summer Field Work: The Ultimate Summer Job?

Kaitlyn Toledo, an Environmental Studies student at Northern Arizona University, reports on her internship with the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy. A native Phoenician, Kaitlyn returned home and endured summer fieldwork. Her work helped us build the foundation for future studies of plants and animals in the Preserve. 

Would you be interested in getting up before dawn cracks, hiking in the heat, drawing imaginary circles in the desert and counting plant species that were over 1 foot tall (Short plants have feelings too)? As an Environmental Science: Biology major this sounded like a dream (Maybe I’ve been out in the sun too long!) As an Ecology Intern for the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy this summer I was living the dream! Observing and collecting data on what lives along the trails in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve took the edge off those 3:45 wake up calls.

During the spring, many flora expeditions were held where MSC volunteers, led by researcher and Sonoran desert flora  expert, Steve Jones, collected flowering plants. They took the specimens to the Arizona State University or Desert Botanical Gardens herbarias. At the herbarias botanists press, keep, and document specimens (more to come in Part II). Specimens stay at these institutions as a permanent catalog of what is in the Preserve.

After the summer heat started to hit and most flowers had gone, the focus of the research shifted to the different plant communities of the Preserve. Certain plants like to live in distinct communities based on a variety of factors, such as: sunlight, soil make-up, or elevation.

The plant community data will be the foundation for the fauna (mammals, invertebrates, birds, and reptiles) research this fall.  In order to gain a more precise understanding of the plant associations within the Preserve, my fellow interns and I, collected data using transects laid out along trails.

An active spring we found on one of our treks. As you can see, it is a prime sampling area for our insect researchers and because of the water, the spring has an abundance of unusual plant life.

A transect is a line or path along which researchers collect data and record their findings, focusing on a specific point of interest. For our purposes, we stopped every 250 meters (barring the existence of a wash) along the trails and collected data within a 10 meter radius.   We used a GPS device to find our latitude and longitude, and to track 250 meters between data collection points.  At each stop, we determined and noted the top three plants in the area that provided the most ground cover. Grasses, annuals, and any plant shorter than 1 foot tall were not considered for this survey (poor things!). The data that we collected Steve Jones and MSC steward, Dan Gruber, used to define particular plant associations along certain trails within the Preserve.

Though our designated purpose was collecting data on the resident flora of the area, we enjoyed visiting with many interesting lizards and insects along the trail, and even saw a toad on Tom’s Thumb (trail that is)! This plant information should allow the fauna team to make connections between the certain plant types and the animals that prefer to live near them.

A Chuckwalla enjoying the shade. A special find on our search for plants!

The wake-up times were early, the trails were hot and trying at times, but there was always fun to be had and something special to be discovered.

An eastward view from the Lookout ( accessible by Lookout Trail). Just another perk of my summer field work!

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Protecting Biodiversity Locally and Globally Through Environmental Stewardship

The Sonoran desert is one of the most biologically diverse habitats on earth. Due to variable climate – generally arid conditions, two  rainy seasons unlike most deserts who only experience one, and low incidence of hard frost events, the Sonoran desert is home to organisms not found anywhere else in the world.

The McDowell Sonoran Preserve, the most significant plant and wildlife habitat in Arizona aside from the Tonto National Forest, highlights this diversity. From spike mosses to saguaro or pocket mice to mountain lions, hundreds of species of flora and fauna thrive here.

According to Nature magazine,“One Example of why biodiversity matters is that about a dozen species make up around 80% of today’s total global crop production. This is a lot of eggs in one basket.  ”


For more on this-

-Nature, October 14, 2010. “One backyard at a time”-

Stewarding the Preserve puts this idea into action. By working locally to protect biodiversity in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, we also protect biodiversity on a global scale.

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Thunderstorms and Haboobs: Monsoon Season is Here!

June 15th marked the first official day of monsoon season. Monsoons, the first of two rainy seasons in the Valley, are one of the characteristics that makes the Sonoran desert unique, allowing saguaro and other native flora and fauna to thrive in otherwise harsh conditions.

Thunderstorm formation creates a haboob. Winds move into the storm until the storm collapses and releases precipitation. When this occurs, the strongest winds are pushed outwards in the direction the storm is traveling. When these winds finally reach the ground, they disturb dust and loose particles, creating a wall of sand in front of the storm.

The haboob Phoenicians experienced on the 5th was nearly one mile high, moved across the city at 50 mph, and wind gusts were clocked at 69 mph!

Below is a great time-lapse video, taken by photographer Mike Olbinski, of the storm moving into town:

A few MSC Stewards captured the after effects of the storm the following morning, while hiking in the Preserve.

This photo, taken by steward Phil Hartley, is the sun rising over Tom's Thumb.

Photo taken by Jacques Giard at Lost Dog Wash

These dust storms can cause a great deal of eye and respiratory irritation so it is best to stay indoors.

Monsoon conditions will continue to persist for the next few days, bringing welcome rains to the Valley. The monsoon season lasts through September 30th so we may see yet another haboob!

Have a monsoon story? Share it with us in the comments box!

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