Sky Ranch Reserve: A Critical Home To Marana’s Wildlife Is Under Threat
Did you know the residential community of Sky Ranch, near Tangerine Road and Camino de Manana, is home to a 409-acre Reserve? Yep, for almost 20 years there has been a permanently protected and undeveloped stretch of the Tortolita Mountain bajada, right here in the town of Marana. The Reserve’s protection is guided by a Habitat Conservation Plan, a cooperative effort between the developer and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Back in 2003, the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl was listed as an endangered species, and the Reserve was deemed part of its critical habitat. Ultimately just 103 acres (20%) of this 512-acre parcel were developed into the residential community you know as Sky Ranch. The Reserve is an important Marana landmark, considered a “significant benefit for future habitat conservation” and was heralded as a model for how to develop neighboring critical habitats.
Today, regardless of the owl’s delisting as endangered (coincidentally, the owl is under consideration to return as an endangered species by the end of 2022), the Habitat Conservation Plan remains in place. This means Marana has been afforded a thriving Sonoran Desert scrub ecosystem undisturbed and intact. It’s common to see javelina, coyotes, mule deer, and desert cottontail foraging among old-growth saguaros, ironwood, palo-verde trees and massive complexes of cholla and prickly pear throughout the Reserve.
The importance of the Reserve is ever increasing with the rapid reduction of open space in critically biodiverse areas near the Tortolita Mountains. The town of Marana has seen explosive development over the past 10 years, with a 48.5% population surge – that’s FOUR times greater than Arizona’s average of 11.9%! The replacement of open space with bladed development greatly affects wildlife, especially when it comes to habitat and movement. For example, an animal’s journey down from the safety of the Tortolita Mountains often requires crossing treacherous Tangerine Road, frequently ending with tragic results. Thankfully, the Town of Marana played a role in collaborating and funding corridors and culverts all along Tangerine as part of a $2.1 billion county taxpayer-funded project to enhance the roadway. Ongoing studies by Arizona Game and Fish clearly indicate these culverts have been widely adopted by javelina, coyotes, mule deer, bobcats and gambel’s quail as a way to safely move under Tangerine Road. Culverts and open spaces next to Tangerine Road (including the 51-acre parcel at the corner of Thornydale and Tangerine) have meant safe passage is possible to and from the Sky Ranch Reserve.
Interestingly, another reason the Reserve has thrived is free-flowing water. Water has always moved unabated across at least five natural, undisturbed washes within that 51-acre parcel into the Reserve. Connecting the flow of water from the foothills of the Tortolita Mountains thru Tangerine’s culverts to the Reserve is an important stipulation of the Habitat Conservation Plan, as it states, “Efforts will be made to maintain and enhance natural flows of water to all areas of the Reserve”.
The Reserve has been lucky: wildlife and water have stayed connected to the property, keeping it one of Marana’s open space gems, teeming with plants and wildlife for more than 20 years. But now, that’s all under threat, as the Marana Planning Commission votes to rezone the parcel on Aug. 31 to high density commercial and residential. The developer is proposing it be “Multi-Use”-a radical change from its current zoning as just 1 residence per 3.3 acres. In fact, the town planners have already signed off on varying proposed plans that contain a mish-mash of high-density housing, fast food, strip malls, apartments and even an assisted care facility. What this suggests is a developer given carte blanche on maximizing profit with little “planning” for the needs of local Marana’s environment or people.
Here’s a diagram from July 2022 with a proposed development that includes: high density single-family homes, 3-story apartments, fast food and 2 commercial buildings; barely meeting lawfully required mandates for open space and riparian wash habitat. The first thing you probably notice is, “What about all the native washes that USFWS state were important in carrying water from the Tortolita Mountains to the Reserve? And how will animals navigate Tangerine’s culverts to the Reserve with no open space setbacks?” You’re certainly not alone, concerned Sky Ranch residents repeatedly voiced their concerns to this developer about issues like these over months and months. The result has been a developer who has scoffed at the idea their 51-acre parcel reflect the historical pattern of low-density commercialization and housing that neighbors this property. Instead, they’ve stuck by a plan where Sky Ranch’s Reserve is cut-off from its connection to the water and animals of the Tortolita Mountains.
The Tortolita Alliance supports the ongoing conservation of preservation-status areas like the Tortolita Preserve and Reserve at Sky Ranch. Therefore, we urge you to attend the Planning Commission Meeting on Aug. 31 at 6PM in the Marana Town Council Chambers and sign up to speak for 3 minutes. Saying no to the rezone allows the Reserve to stay a thriving Marana landmark for years to come, while also ensuring your tax payer dollars for Tangerine’s culverts weren’t spent in vain. We know from experience that only your voice matters to the Town and we strongly encourage your attendance on Aug. 31.