August 2023
We Can Do Better
New development and road construction need not destroy local wildlife and ecosystems

Roads are built in or through streams, wetlands and other natural waterways. Expansive valleys with gorgeous viewsheds are filled in with earth, concrete, asphalt and roofs. What happens to wildlife when roads are widened or new ones are constructed?

In most cases the habitat is fragmented, meaning there is no system of pathways and topography to follow as migration routes. These corridors provide ways for larger mammals to migrate, forage and drink, as well as safe spaces for breeding, rearing and play. Habitat fragmentation leaves unrecognizable plots of land, causing genetic isolation — inbreeding — and whole populations, even species, eventually die out.

Economic development encourages the expansion of residential subdivisions, commercial and industrial districts and transportation infrastructure, and their effects on our natural resources tend to diminish our own quality of life as well. Roads, railways, airports and other transportation infrastructure can have secondary effects on the community that degrade the very resources and recreational activities that attracted the development in the first place.

The impact of expanding cityscapes is the degradation of air, water and vegetative resources that support the natural regional ecosystems we depend on for clean water and clean air. As a result, community protection of the watersheds within areas of high growth becomes vitally important.

The Prescott area encompasses a unique array of localized habitats that benefit the movement and survival of wildlife, including highland grassland, pine forests and scrub terrain. Providing “transportation infrastructure” for people as well as animals, these ecosystems can be integrated with development  and infrastructure projects. Development as it occurs now, however, creates barriers to wildlife movement and healthy procreation. Degrading wildlife populations should be a red flag for our own health and well-being.

New transportation infrastructure causes fragmentation of herds and prevents healthy breeding by many species, especially pronghorn and deer populations. Keeping areas that connect wildlife habitats in their natural state is essential to wildlife preservation and enhancement.

Watershed management methods that restore or mimic the natural functions of the ecosystem prior to human development are the best ways to manage ecosytems sustainably. Restoring stream channels, wetlands and lakes as integral parts of economic development can regenerate the natural resources impacted by human development.

Municipalities can easily incorporate the renewal of natural ecosystems in high-growth areas using watershed management plans. To be successful, concepts and plans for wildlife protection must enter into new municipal infrastructure and development projects in the planning stages. A new, progressive approach to this form of regenerative program is to apply land-use protections for wildlife migration and habitat.

In addition to preserving and enhancing natural areas where wildlife can congregate or migrate, the designs of roads and residential developments can include habitat-aware structural features. Bridges, fencing, lights and markings can all contribute to the overall community effort to preserve our natural features and fauna. Culverts, with fencing to help direct animals through them, represent an easy way to direct wildlife to other pastures without high cost or environmental damage, for example.

Projects in Process

Two proposals for large projects in the Prescott area are being evaluated for environmental commitments, and wildlife corridors are part of those reviews. One is an Urban Freight Corridor along SR69 from Dewey-Humboldt to Prescott, the other is the Sundog Connector.

It seems inevitable that the Sundog Connector will cut through or reduce habitat due to construction of the road and the development that will come with it. The natural terrain of its proposed route options is not well suited for preserving or enhancing a wildlife corridor because the valley floors, which will fill in with roads, homes, utilities, etc., are too narrow to provide much in terms of migratory routes for wildlife to get to the proposed Granite Dells Regional Park, and the slopes up the sides of those valleys are too steep for deer migration.

The SR69 Urban Corridor provides better options for sustainable wildlife corridors through the developed area. The many necessary bridges and culverts can be modified to allow for safe travel by migratory animals along existing natural corridors. By preserving stream channels, there will be food and water available through most of the year.

What can we do?

Map likely areas of migration to help determine where and whether wildlife corridors already exist.

Integrate the wildlife corridors and habitat programs found in most local land-use plans into municipal development codes. Dense development shuts off migration completely, but developments zoned for fewer houses per lot provide more pathways for wildlife.

Land purchases by local governments can preserve significant portions of streams, woodland areas, springs, and waterways or washes.

Develop programs or priorities with state agencies such as the State Land Department or Arizona Game and Fish to incorporate wildlife protections in state law and agency action.

Seek federal funding made available to the National Forest Service to enhance natural corridors and expand them. Join a wildlife group and start making a little bit of heaven on earth!

Chuck Budinger is an occasional contributor to 5enses covering environmental issues.

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