Conserving the Wild West: Arizona’s green dream

The cowboys and Indians are still there but there's more to America's 48th state than reliving the glory days of the Wild West. Home to seven different ecosystems, it is leading the way in conservation and green tourism. Ruth Styles went to find out more.

Think of the United States and environmentalism probably isn't the first thing that springs to mind. Thanks to its climate change deniers, reliance on fossil fuels and failure to sign up to Kyoto – or indeed, any sort of green treaty – it's no surprise that the world's most powerful country is seen as a bit of a slouch in the eco stakes. But to write the country off as a flat earther's paradise wouldn't just be wrong – it would be unfair to boot. With California and New York leading the charge, the USA has plenty for environmentalists the world over to admire. And nowhere is the eco trend more apparent than in Arizona.


One of the most ecologically diverse places on Earth, the cowboy state boasts no fewer than seven different types of habitat, ranging from sun-scorched desert in the south to snowy mountains in the north. Of its 113,998 square miles, only 15 per cent is privately owned, with the rest made up of a combination of national park, publicly owned forest and parkland, and Native American reservations. It's got extinct volcanoes, huge ponderosa pine forests and most spectacularly of all, the Grand Canyon. With so much natural bounty to protect, it's small wonder that green tourism is playing an increasingly important part in the state's economy. And unlike Arizona's other major source of cash – copper mining – it benefits the planet in more ways than one.

Seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time is something you'll never forget. It doesn't matter how many pictures you've seen or books you've read; its sheer size – if nothing else – will blow you away. Formed almost a billion years ago, its red-gold rocks and mighty ravines are home to some of the rarest species of flora in the world – and some of its cheekiest fauna in the shape of the tubby ground squirrels that haunt the trails and picnic sites along the top. It's a place of almost unearthly beauty but until recently, could only be reached by car or plane. That there's an alternative is largely thanks to the efforts of one man: Max Biegert. The Grand Canyon has had its own railway line since 1901 but by the 1980s, the route had fallen into disuse. When the Biegerts arrived in 1989, the Grand Canyon Railway's old-fashioned steam trains were rusting in the depot, while Williams – once the gateway to the Grand Canyon – had been sidelined. Thanks to the Biegerts, and more recently, eco-tourism operator, Xanterra, the train is back and this time comes with a green twist: it's powered by used cooking oil.

'It's definitely the greenest way to get to the Canyon,' enthuses the railway's director of sustainability, Morgan O'Connor. 'There was a study done by Northern Arizona University that showed it was by far the most environmentally friendly way to go there. Because of it, 125,000 people a year aren't driving their car.' And getting to the Grand Canyon by train is more than just a green option: it's also a highly entertaining one featuring a slapstick 'train robbery' and the chance to get a closer look at the wonderful surrounding countryside. The scenery changes constantly, with the snow capped San Francisco Peaks giving way to the carmine Red Beaut escarpment then a forest of petrified pine trees before you reach the Canyon itself. You get a brief glimpse of it as the train pulls into the charmingly old fashioned timber Grand Canyon station, before a short walk takes you to the rim of the Canyon where you'll find one of the most magnificent views on the planet. 'There's still a lot more to be done in terms of sustainable tourism,' qualifies Morgan. 'But it's at the heart of our [Xanterra's] core mission.'

Article continues at ENN affiliate, Ecologist

Arizona Desert image via Shutterstock