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The natural inclination of miners and mining companies, when confronted by a hunk of desert, is to dig in it. Until quite recently there has been very little disposition to restrain them, partly because most people have tended to think of a desert as an arid, lifeless waste. Now the desert has won a passel of defenders, thanks in large measure to a remarkable institution called the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, located in Tucson Mountain Park, 15 miles from the Arizona city.
The desert's new status was dramatized at Christmastime when the Department of the Interior rescinded a September order that would have opened 7,600 acres of the 27,840-acre park to mining operations. The reversal was the result of a two-day hearing, held in October, in which more than 1,000 persons, many of them educated to the values of desert life by the museum, roared disapproval.
That hearing will long stand as an example of how effective the voice of an aroused community can be. Supporters of the integrity of their park crowded the hearing room in Tucson's Pioneer Hotel, eager to give testimony before Roger C. Ernst, Assistant Secretary of the Interior. Among them were representatives of a long list of organizations ranging from the chamber of commerce to the YWCA. There were those who came to speak for official bodies such as the Arizona State Parks Board and the Arizona Game and Fish Commission.
There were eloquent pleas by such men as C. B. Brown, the man who sparked the park idea in 1929, and Joseph Wood Krutch, the writer. There were fervent pleas by many private citizens, among them John Pupo, a former Pennsylvania coal miner who added that "there is a special place in hell for those who won't get out and fight for what is theirs." Meanwhile the city's two newspapers, The Arizona Daily Star and the Tucson Daily Citizen, had joined in the battle to save the park, one of the rare times that they have gotten together on anything. Resolutions supporting the park were put into the record by all manner of civic organizations. National interest was demonstrated by letters and telegrams from persons in 26 states.
On the second day of the hearing, testimony in favor of the order was given by various representatives of the mining interests. There was a small minority which felt that possible large-scale mining would be more important to Tucson than the effect on the park.
One of the main reasons for the intense public interest in Tucson Mountain Park is the unique museum. In the midst of the giant saguaros, 15 miles to the west of Tucson, a group of dedicated enthusiasts has created a national institution. It is growing so fast they can hardly keep up with it. More than a million Americans, at a rate now in excess of 200,000 a year, have visited the museum—which really should be described by some other word. The place actually is a hybrid, displaying characteristics of a museum, a zoo, an aquarium and a botanical garden. Its exhibits are designed to interpret the life of the desert, both to home folks and tourists.
Many of the taboos of other institutions are missing at the Desert Museum. Visitors get into the spirit of the place when they read such signs as the one over the collection of geological specimens which reads, "If you are interested, please handle." Even the necessary restrictions are phrased differently. The family pup is put back in the car without protest when the owners read a sign saying, "No dogs allowed for obvious reasons." Local interest is so great that the museum, which displays living animals native to Arizona and the bordering Mexican state of Sonora, has had to buy only a handful of specimens. All the rest have been brought in proudly by the citizenry, who come toting everything from horned toads to wildcats.
Once a helicopter landed on the museum grounds and a couple of grinning GIs got out and presented to museum officials a box containing three fine diamondback rattlesnakes. Earlier the museum had loaned the Corps of Engineers at Fort Huachuca some animals to use in their desert survival course. The engineers were repaying a favor with live rattlesnakes.
These are but a few of the reasons why the Desert Museum is expanding. Easterners who go there with a preconceived idea that the desert is a dreary place where wildlife is scarce soon change their minds. They discover the abundance of animals in the desert and they learn how they live. They see the many odd forms of flowering cactus and learn how plants and animals adjust their lives to the harshness brought about by heat and by water scarcity.
Furthermore, they absorb these things in the outdoors amid a genial atmosphere that reflects the attitude of the men who are building this oasis of learning in the desert. The motto of the museum might well be: "participate." Few persons are too old or too timid to get a kick out of tickling a young badger or petting a prairie dog. They can't even keep their hands off the cactus plants. A supply of tweezers is kept on hand for tourists who insist upon testing the efficiency of cactus spines.