How Tumamoc Hill balances popularity with preservation

Nov. 11, 2018

Opinion: How do you protect fragile history and important research in a place with 1,000 visitors a day? By making it more accessible.

Tumamoc Hill is a beloved Tucson landmark with an existential challenge: How to balance its popularity with hikers and its role as a living scientific laboratory.

Benjamin Wilder, Tumamoc’s new director, has some interesting insights that could benefit wild and beautiful places statewide that are in danger of being hammered by an adoring public.

Consider his challenge.

Tumamoc Hill is an 860-acre ecological reserve largely owned by the University of Arizona and managed by UA for scientific research on plants and animals. It has been a living desert laboratory for more than 100 years, and it claims to have the world's oldest permanent plant ecology study plots.

The hill also gives an average of 1,000 people a day dazzling views of Tucson as they walk, run or gasp up its 1.5 miles of steady incline and steep switchbacks.

People connect with this place

“People’s connection with this space is very personal and who is ‘the owner’ does not matter,” says Wilder, who was named director of Tumamoc Hill in October.

He understands the importance of continuing to welcome the community of “hill walkers” that has increased tenfold in the last 20 years.

He also knows what’s at stake if those folks don’t value the resource and understand their potential to harm it.

“You can erase thousands of years of history in a second,” he says.

For example, a type of maize was cultivated around Tumamoc 4,100 years ago, which makes “Tumamoc Hill and the adjacent area the longest continuously habited site in the United States,” according to the timeline prepared by the UA’s Desert Lab on Tumamoc.

The entire site contains archaeological treasures, says Wilder.

The research here is active and ongoing

What’s more, there are currently 20 active research projects and an ongoing battle to control invasive buffelgrass, a non-native species that represents a threat to the entire Sonoran desert.

Wilder says 99.5 percent of hill walkers do follow the rules, stay on the paved road to the top and leave the plants and animals alone.

“But .5 percent of a thousand is a lot of knuckleheads,” he says.

There have been names scratched in rocks and plants. Rocks that were placed by ancient people more than two thousand years ago have been moved to make modern cairns. There has been vandalism of barriers set up to protect off-the-path areas where overuse caused problems.

Wilder is a native Tucsonan with his own deep connection to the hill. He gets the importance of Tumamoc as “a community gathering space.”

This space was used 2,400 years ago

He explains it while sitting at a picnic table outside one of the sturdy stone buildings built in the early 1900s when the Andrew Carnegie Institution funded research on Tumamoc Hill into how arid plants survive in our desert. Wilder’s office is in one of those buildings. But who wants to be inside on a fine fall day?

“We are part of a continuum of using this space,” he says. “2,400 years ago people were drawn up here – it’s a deep part of the fabric of this region.”

I’m one of the modern people who are still drawn up the hill. I can attest to the wide diversity of people who share my love of a place where the switchbacks and the views can both take your breath away.

You see all kinds of people – those in street clothes and those in slick athletic wear. Those who run full tilt before dropping for a few pushups and those who plod along behind baby carriages.

You hear lots of different languages, too. Predominantly Spanish, but I have also heard Russian, French, German and Arabic – along with other languages I couldn’t place, but guessed to be from countries in Africa or Asia.

People walk year ‘round, with numbers dropping off to about 800 a day in the summer and peaking in the winter months to 1,250, Wilder says.


He extended hours, added benches

“It’s not a park,” he says. “It’s a very sensitive site.”

The current number of hill walkers represents “the most use this site has gotten – ever,” he says.

So how do you balance the scientific values with the popularity of the hill to a growing urban community?

Wilder is doing it by making Tumamoc more open and honoring the importance of the site as a community resource.

The daytime hours when people can walk the hill have been expanded. There are benches now and signs to explain the history and the ecology. There is even an app you can download free to tell the story of Tumamoc.

His approach is inclusive. He’s trying to leverage a shared love of this place into a shared sense of stewardship.

What Tumamoc still needs: Volunteers

He wants to expand people’s knowledge of the hill – including an extensive fossil collection that he plans to make accessible – to “make science relevant” and “to communicate our work as a scientific institution.”

All that’s missing, he says, is funding for someone to recruit and coordinate volunteers who will become “site stewards” and walk the hill to help interpret the place and make people aware of their role in protecting it.

Prehistory. History. Culture. Biology. And anthropology that goes right up to modern day. “So many narratives,” says Wilder. He says what’s needed is a “transdisciplinary” approach that’s about “merging all of them together instead of keeping them in silos.”

About respecting all of them instead of diminishing one to elevate another.

This idea is as remarkable as the view of Tucson from the top of the hill. Wilder ought to get the funding. This could become a model for other places where today’s visitors are key to preserving yesterday’s treasures.  

“We can take care of it as a community,” he says.