Olson: People are the lifeblood of the Desert Discovery Center

I love the McDowell Mountains. I love their purple hue at dusk, the undulations of their peaks against the sky and their majestic stature from every vantage point as I travel the city. I’ve hiked nearly every trailhead, circumnavigated them in the annual Tour de Scottsdale and continue to bring every visitor to the Gateway to see the wildflowers as they peak each spring.

The McDowell Mountains have a constant presence in my life, and have since I moved to the Valley in 1991.

Michelle Olson

Michelle Olson

What I didn’t know then, however, was how involved I would become in protecting them, for future generations and for those of us here today; for those who want to get a daily workout by hiking deep into their folds, and for those who just want to better understand what lives there, what grows there and what used to be there centuries ago.

My passion for these mountains started with a four-wheel drive tour up the dirt trails when DC Ranch was a real operating cattle ranch. The land was zoned for residential use to the highest peak and its new owner was more preservation minded, requesting instead that the city consider clustering homes at its base.

As part of the communications team entrusted to educate the community on the prospective change, I joined an exploration of the land on very bumpy ranch roads.

It was 1994 and I was six months pregnant with twins.

For 24 hours after the ride, as I lay bedridden with boys who just couldn’t settle back down, I thought about that experience and what the McDowell Mountains must have meant to previous generations and how we were granted a brief moment in time to ensure that future generations, including the boys growing inside me, would have access to what I had just seen: pure desert and mostly un-tampered land, for miles.

My dreams in the early nineties were slowly coming true as the McDowell Sonoran Land Trust was created and the city began buying land, parcel by parcel, to preserve it.

For 20 years I’ve witnessed the unbridled dedication of so many people, working as volunteers, to fight for what they believed – that the McDowell Mountains were Scottsdale’s crown jewel, a most unique geological creation that deserved to be protected for all of its residents and visitors to enjoy.

It is this group of people with whom I have volunteered for more than a year to put form around one of the Preserve’s future assets – the Desert Discovery Center.

As you’ve probably read, the DDC has been in the city’s plans for nearly 30 years. What you may not know, however, is that many of the passionate preservationists who are now involved in creating this asset were at the table when the Preserve itself was created.

Some were involved in the very beginning of the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy and served on its board of directors for years, turning over every rock to find the funding to make the Preserve a reality that lives long after they’ve gone.

They have volunteered on their own time, working tirelessly at their own expense for years as though they could lose it all if the mountains gave way to development.

These are now the people who make up the board of directors of Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale, Inc., a non-profit group that has been newly contracted by the city to study the concept, deploy public education and involvement activities and make a recommendation to the city in 18 months regarding the feasibility of the DDC, how it will be funded and where it will be located.

I’ve seen the passion and commitment of these people in the wee hours of the night, hammering out potential scenarios and rallying their friends to support the effort financially. And they have become role models for me. They are inspiring, ethical, giving, collaborative and inclusive. Their energy knows no boundaries and their passion for this project is contagious.

For two decades, they have acted selflessly to create an amenity that everyone can enjoy, and now it’s time for the rest of us to pony up.

The good news? All you need to do is show up when invited and give feedback when asked.

Be open minded and come to the table with the heart of an educator. Because in the long run, that’s what we’re trying to do. Share this gift of the McDowell Mountains with anyone who’s interested.

And those “anyones” might come from thousands of miles away, eager to learn about the Sonoran Desert, or about life in an arid climate. Or they could be school children on a field trip, eager to catch their first glimpse of the storied Gila Monster.

Either way, they want to learn more about this treasure in our backyard and we’re just the people to tell them about it. So please join us.

Editor's Note: Michelle Olson is a Scottsdale-based public relations practitioner, business owner, and avid hiker, bicyclist and nature lover. She also is a Desert Discovery Center Advocate.

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