September 7, 2007
Mississippi Kite with Cicada
Mississippi Kite with Cicada
I'd like to play word association with you.  Today's word is "riparian."  If you're new to birding, you may not know the word.  It is derived from the Latin for "streambank," and veteran desert birders know it well.  Used as an adjective, of or pertaining to the banks of rivers, I've never heard "riparian" used outside the context of birding in the desert.  In the scheme of life on our planet, not many birds have evolved for desert living, and those that have are certainly concentrated in riparian areas.  For water and food.  For shelter and nesting.  Just like us.

My dictionary does not carry a definition of the word "riparian."  It just has a picture of Bob Witzeman, retired Phoenix physician, Arizona's foremost environmental warrior over the past four decades.  If you've splashed your way down the Salt in a raft or innertube, if you've watched majestic bald eagles fishing along the Verde, if you've camped in solitude beneath the awesome walls of the Gila Box, if you've looked for the spectacular avian species that come north just to breed along the lower San Pedro, you've Bob Witzeman to thank.

He's been there for you, the birds, and the rivers of Arizona since the early '70s.  In stints as President and, more recently and most importantly, as Conservation Chair of the Maricopa Audubon Society, Witzeman has been the point man in the legal battles waged to preserve our desert's dwindling cottonwood and willow riparian forests from inundating dams, grazing cattle, mine tailings, and off-road vehicles.  If "desert" and "forest" strike you as an oxymoron, that's because you didn't get here soon enough.  An estimated 95% of the southwest's riparian habitat has already disappeared.  Without Witzeman it could all be gone.

There are two things which Witzeman, as the point warrior in Arizona's conservation wars, has done for you and me.  One we don't take the time to do ourselves.  The other we never think about.  He's done all the research.  He's taken all the heat.  In 1999 Witzeman was named Conservationist of the Year by the Arizona Audubon Council, and he was awarded the Thomas McCullough Memorial Award by the Arizona Wildlife Federation.  Now his latest battle is one that has, unfortunately, split Arizona's environmental conservation community.

No matter where you stand on the issues surrounding Resolution Copper Company's proposed land swap for the unique and beautiful riparian area that is Devil's Canyon in the Dripping Springs Mountains just east of Superior, I do not want you to forget what Bob Witzeman has done and what he has meant to the birders, the birds, and the rivers of our Arizona.

In a recent article Witzeman quoted Jacques Cousteau:  "I want to fight til I'm stricken on the spot.  Fight for what?  For the world, for life, for happiness, for clean air, for songs, for birds in the air and for fish in the sea."  Isn't that what we should all be united in trying to do?  Witzeman isn't just channeling Cousteau.  Witzeman is Arizona's Cousteau.  No matter the outcome of the Devil's Canyon fight, no matter whether you ever personally go into Devil's Canyon to know its grandeur and its solitude, know this.  Many of Arizona's wild riparian treasures still exist, still out there for our exploration, our contemplation, and our awe, still out there to remind us of whence our species came.  That is Bob Witzeman's legacy.

Thanks Bob.