White Tank Mountains Conservancy March Newsletter

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In the Destination Arizona section as Places to Visit

If you’re looking for an adventure in nature right by a major city like Phoenix, the White Tank Mountains Conservancy is perfect for you. Home to the White Tank Mountain Regional Park and the Skyline Regional Park, the conservancy focuses on preserving the natural beauty that surrounds the lands and protect local wildlife such as mule deer, mountain lions, and javelina, among other animals. Come see the wildlife, natural beauty, and awe-inspiring landscapes – they’re all less than 45 minutes away from Phoenix!

Photo and Videos Credits

  • Peter Costello
  • Bob Hopper
  • Nick Cusolito

Video Production

  • Karyn Robinson, Cox
  • Elizabeth Webster, Cox media


Ancient Agriculture and Heirloom Seeds

Donna Hamill, Certified Master Gardener and WTMC Steward-in-Training

Ancient people have farmed along the Salt and Gila River Valleys for about 2,000 years. The Hohokam, for example, thrived until about 1,400 C.E.

These early indigenous people left a legacy of agriculture that included hundreds of miles of irrigation canals that spanned the river valleys from Florence to Gila Bend. There was not enough water to fill all of the ditches at the same time, so the farmers developed a sophisticated system of head gates, dams, and reservoirs that controlled and directed the precious water. The complexity of the canals reflected a similarly highly developed political structure, favoring certain social positions. (It was always good to know the right people.)

Early crops consisted of plants that grew natively in the Americas and were domesticated for use. The Aztecs in Mexico, for example, grew a small-seeded grain, called Amaranth. This crop was so highly regarded for food, that it also became part of the Aztec religion, based on human blood sacrifice.

The grain’s affiliation with this unfortunate ritual almost led to its extinction during the 1500’s and 1600’s. Spanish missionaries, attempting to end human sacrifice, banned the growing of amaranth. Fortunately, a few missionaries understood the real problem was not the plant but the practice itself. These enlightened individuals secretly grew the grain in their own mission gardens, and saved the plant from oblivion.

Amaranth seeds moved northward along trade routes to Arizona and to the Hohokam, becoming an important part of their food system, too.

Of course, the mainstay of the early Hohokam diet was corn, another example of a domesticated wild grass-like plant, called Teosinte. About 9,000 years ago, people began to breed Teosinte, selecting those attributes which suited them, eventually producing the hundreds of types of corn we know today. Some varieties are specialized for grinding into flour, others for popping, and also sweet varieties for eating fresh.

Teosinte is sometimes still planted alongside fields of corn because cultural traditions say it “strengthens” the corn. This belief has scientific merit based upon the idea that it broadens the genetic diversity of the harvested crop.

Corn was usually planted together with beans and squash—a practice known today as “companion planting.” The tall corn stalk formed a foundation upon which the beans could climb. Both plants then shaded the more delicate, sun-sensitive squash, sown below. This practice was common to Native Americans throughout North America and became known as the “Three Sisters.”

Since the common bean struggled with the hot, dry Arizona climate, the Hohokam replaced the ‘bean’ sister with an arid-adapted tepary bean. Pods could be eaten fresh when young and tender, or saved as dried beans from mature pods.

All sorts of squash developed. Summer squash, similar to zucchini, was eaten young and fresh. Those same small fruits, left on the vine, matured into a hard-shelled variety, similar to pumpkin, that stored well into the winter, hence the name “Winter Squash.”

When the Spanish Conquistadors and early missionaries arrived in the Americas during the 1500s, they brought seeds for new crops. In the late 1600’s, Father Kino, a Jesuit missionary, visited the indigenous people along the Salt and Gila River Valleys, an area he mapped, calling it “Pimeria Alta.” He brought gifts, including fruit trees, grapes, and wheat.

Surprisingly, many of the Native American fields he saw along the way were already ripe with melons, peas, onions, and other imported vegetables—Gifts brought by earlier missionaries visiting Mexico and other southern locations. The prized articles quickly traveled northward up trade routes, rooting themselves in the fields of the ancestors of the Gila River Pima and Tohono O’odham, even before Father Kino’s visit. Some of the new crops, such as onions and wheat, expanded the tribes’ ability to plant in the mild Arizona winter—producing a year-round crop.

Since then, the local Native Americans have continued to grow crops, year after year. With each planting season, the grains and vegetables became better adapted to the hot Arizona sun, alkaline soil, and limited supply of water. For example, the perennial Tohono O’odham multiplying onion went dormant in the summer to escape inhospitable conditions. Tepary beans learned to thrive in hot sun and dry sand. All of the crop varieties adapted and became genetically special . . . because they knew how to survive.

Many of these arid-adapted varieties of food crops have already become extinct. Most of those remaining, are rare and threatened.

They belong to a larger group of plants called “heirlooms,” which represent varieties of grains, fruits, flowers, and vegetables that are at least 50 years old, are uniquely adapted to some local area or microclimate, and are often endangered.

The next time you plant a garden, consider sowing Arizona heirlooms. In addition to producing delicious vegetables that grow well in our hot Arizona climate, you’ll also be helping to save precious endangered plants. This is a great activity for parents and children of all ages, as it teaches about food, gardening, climate, history, conservation, and family togetherness.

If you want to know more about Arizona heirloom crops, look at these non-profit links:


The Kino Heritage Fruit Tree Project



Budding Botanists Continue Work

Alice Neal and Nancy Martin

The science program for the White Tank Mountains Conservancy continues to thrive as Cass Blodgett and Dawn Goldman lead the “budding botanists” through washes and up rugged trails exploring the abundant wildflowers and plants that are blooming this spring.

Dawn reported that that they collected one plant that has never been collected in the White Tank Park, the Phacelia affinis. So far the Asteraceae, or Aster family, tops the list of most specimens collected with the grass family, Poaceae, running a close second.

Phacelia affinis

She also indicated that they have collected a number of invasive species including two “big bad” ones—Sahara Mustard (Brassica Tournefortii) and Buffel Grass (Pennisetum ciliate). Dawn’s favorite collection so far has been the Bursera microhylla, which is commonly known as Elephant Tree. She emphasized that they got it in full fruit!

Some of the budding botanists who have been categorizing the plants include Nancy Martin, Bruce Martin, JoAnn Paderi, Sharon Beal, Scott Kanzusch, and Cindy Smith. They have been on the Goat Camp trail and the Sonoran Loop as well as others.



Jane Fricke, Volunteer Coordinator

We had 16 new Stewards at our February 11th New Steward Orientation. Several attended the Citizen Patrol Training on the 25th as well. A few attended the Annual Awards Banquet.

We manned a booth at Arizona Traditions the 3rd Friday of each month, as well as at the Annual Friends of White Tank Park’s Arts and Crafts Fair. We will also have a booth at the Tres Rios Nature Festival in March. We were also at the Buckeye Air Fair Show, Verrado Business Network, helped direct traffic at the Friends Art Fair and led a hike with Ventana Lakes Hiking Club.

So far this year, we have volunteered 398.45 hours with the Conservancy!

A few “Days” to keep in mind:

  • March 30th is National Take a Walk in the Park Day
  • June 3rd is National Trails Day
  • September 30th is National Public Lands Day
  • November 17th is National Take a Hike Day

And now some Tales from our Trails:

Hi Jane, We had what might have been a record number of visitors to the Waterfall Trail, on Feb. 20th. I had over 1500 people on my counter in the 4 hours that I patrolled the trail mostly at the Waterfall Canyon, moving visitors in and out of the waterfall viewing area and through the narrow access to that area. The falls were running and cascading down the steps, while visitors lined up several minutes to squeeze through the rocks to see the falls. Traffic was also congested because parking spots were all filled and people were parking on the roadside. Rodger Wilson, Citizen Patrol Waterfall Trail, WTMRP

We wish you a wonderful summer full of fun and traipsing our trails in our parks. Be sure to hydrate on hot days!


Guess Who is Stepping Up . . . .

Alice Neal

Nancy Martin, Class 1, has stepped up to leadership by presenting the information on “How to Earn the Steward Badge” at steward orientation for Class 4. She also attends the Education and Outreach Committee meetings regularly and recently won the committee vote for the winning name of our new roadrunner mascot Rudy Rascal. Nancy is an active Budding Botanist and often helps with marketing efforts. Thank you, Nancy!

John Laabs, Class 3, is stepping up to leadership. He will oversee the Arizona Traditions outreach for the coming season October through March. He is also a new contributor to the newsletter and has introduced speakers in our “Urban Wildlife Series.” He often participates in marketing efforts, as well. Way to go, John!

Steve Rugh, Class 1, is stepping up to multiple responsibilities. Steve serves as a Pathfinder at Skyline at least once a week for at least three hours and attends and contributes to the Education and Outreach Committee meetings regularly. He also markets the Conservancy at various locations. He is our connection to Skyline Park and the City of Buckeye. In addition, he serves on the Publicity Committee sharing his knowledge of radio and television operations to help us understand marketing strategies. Hats off to you, Steve!

Rodger Wilson, Class 4, continues to step up as a steward. He is a recognized face seen on the trails in both White Tank and Skyline Parks. Rodger uses his knowledge of native plants to lead plant hikes and recently assisted Conservancy member JoAnn Paderi in leading a group of 18 hikers from Ventana to visit Willow Springs. Keep on trekking, Rodger!


Featured Conservancy Steward: Cindy Smith

John Laabs

When it comes to “enthusiasm” about nature, the outdoors, and wildflowers, Cindy Smith defines the word. Cindy wears several hats as a White Tank Mountain Regional Park volunteer. She became a Maricopa County Park Volunteer in 2012 and completed the first New Steward Orientation program with the Conservancy in January 2016. Cindy leads several hike programs and assists as “sweeper” for other hiking events. She plans and conducts the popular The Desert Awakens Walk and Wildflower Walk events over several weeks in late winter and early spring. In February 2016, Cindy completed the Budding Botanist training program at the Desert Botanical Garden. Since then, she has, with other volunteers, assisted Cass Blodgett and Dawn Goldman on trips into several areas in the mountain range to collect plant material for analysis and cataloging for the first time since the early 1970’s.

Cindy grew up and raised her family in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, where she earned an Associate Degree in Science and worked for many years as a legal secretary. Although she lived in the environs of Detroit, Cindy spent considerable time in the northeastern part of the peninsula near Alpena where her family had hunting land. There Cindy developed a love for all things outdoors and for nature. Her father taught her to have a keen awareness of the environment, and she describes him as well ahead of his time in promoting conservation and protection of natural resources. She attributes her experiences in Michigan in sparking her interest and passion for nature, wildlife, and plants. In 1999, after completing a particularly large legal case, Cindy brought up the idea of retirement, which her husband, Dick, encouraged. So Cindy was off to the Valley of the Sun. Dick completed his career in the automotive industry 18 months later and joined her permanently. After a brief time in the east Valley, Cindy and Dick moved west and now call Sun City home. The west Valley, the couple discovered, turned out to be a great location to pursue all of their retirement interests. For Cindy, the proximity to the White Tank Mountains continuously nurtures her love for the flora of the desert and hiking.

Visitors often come to the White Tanks for Cindy’s events on the park program including the Wildflower Walks and The Desert Awakens Walks. And, as Cindy quickly points out, 2017 has turned out to be the best year for wildflowers since 2000 when she started hiking in the White Tank Mountains. On a recent Wildflower Walk over 40 people attended to learn about the spectacular display of Mexican Gold Poppy, Coulter Lupine, and a wide array other flowering plants. Each walk takes park guests on a two-hour stroll on trails and into washes with the best flower displays (Cindy scouts for a prime location the day before each event). Throughout the hike Cindy not only talks about the plants and flowers but also adds colorful facts about the White Tanks and their rich history. In the Desert Awakens Walks, Cindy provides more in depth information on the roles of water, soil, and sunlight and how these factors impact what visitors see and experience in the Sonoran Desert. With the recent promotion and transfer of Park Ranger Jessica Bland, Cindy added the Desert General Store program to her schedule. The hike highlights the natural food and material resources found in the White Tanks and used by ancient nomadic people and the Hohokam residents of the west Valley.

As summer approaches in the low desert, Cindy and Dick start to plan their next travel adventure. Not surprisingly, their travel centers on the outdoors. The couple has set a goal to visit as many of the US National Parks as possible. Although they are avid campers in their park expeditions, late in 2016 they opted to stay in one of the lodges when they visited Yosemite National Park to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. Late in spring 2017, they will drive east to see their family, celebrate graduations of their grandchildren from high school and college, and explore several National Parks from Acadia in Maine to Shenandoah in Virginia.

Cindy describes herself as an “enthusiast not an expert” when she speaks of her volunteer work in the White Tank Mountain Regional Park and for the Conservancy. She has certainly earned her informal title as the “Wildflower Lady,” and she has eagerly stepped up to expand her roles in her favorite park location – the trails. Regardless of title or job description, Cindy’s continued pursuit of learning about the White Tanks and its plants and flowers, the popularity of her trail events, and her commitment as a volunteer continue to enrich the park experience for visitors.


Rudy Rascal Roadrunner to Zoom into the White Tanks

Alice Neal

We know our WTM mascot is a roadrunner because the Buckeye Elementary School District kids chose him. We are reasonably sure what he looks like and that he is excellent advertisement for the parks because our mascot contest winners Jordyn Bell and Jose Osornio showed us and told us. We know his name because the Education & Outreach Committee called him Rudy Rascal, but we don’t know who will bring him to life!

Rudy Rascal

Rudy will soon walk among us at park and community events in a mascot suit that is a version of Jordyn’s drawing. However, we are searching for the right person(s) to personify the “awesome, speedy” roadrunner. If you love being Santa or the Easter Bunny, are 5’8’ to 6’ tall and weigh in at less than 180 pounds, you just might be the right candidate.

If you think you are just the volunteer to fill Rudy Rascal’s speedy shoes, contact Alice Neal at wtmc.educationandoutreach.org. The sooner Rudy races, the better!


Steward Celebration and Recognition

Alice Neal

What a great event! Approximately forty stewards and friends/spouses gathered at the White Tank Mountains Regional Park Nature Center on February 18 for celebration and recognition of Conservancy successes.

Mayor Jackie Meck, WTMC Board Chair Todd Hornback, Executive Director Les Meyers, and Stewardship Leader Bob Wisener presented awards to six stewards who had dedicated over eighty hours each to the Conservancy to date. Those receiving the awards were Ray and Bernadette Baun, Volunteer Coordinator Jane Fricke, Webmaster and technical support provider Robert Hopper, Steve Rugh, and Education and Outreach Chair Alice Neal.

Lon Sage, Parent Community Coordinator for the Buckeye Elementary School District, was recognized as a community partner with the Education and Outreach Committee for his coordination of the school-based project to select the Conservancy mascot.

Thanks to Bob Wisener and Jane Fricke for planning the event.


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Photo Credits: Peter Costello, Nick Cusolito, Bob Hopper, Scott Kranzasch

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