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Arid Arizona Points to Global Warming as Culprit

Climate Shift Is Blamed as Livelihoods Are Affected

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page A03

TUCSON -- Reese Woodling remembers the mornings when he would walk the grounds of his ranch and come back with his clothes soaked with dew, moisture that fostered enough grass to feed 500 cows and their calves.

But by 1993, he says, the dew was disappearing around Cascabel -- his 2,700-acre ranch in the Malpai borderlands straddling New Mexico and Arizona -- and shrubs were taking over the grassland. Five years later Woodling had sold off half his cows, and by 2004 he abandoned the ranch.

Reese Woodling, in white, used to own a 2,700-acre ranch, but lack of rain reduced the grassland -- his main source of cattle feed. (Family Photo)

"How do you respond when the grass is dying? You hope to hell it starts to rain next year," he says.

When the rain stopped coming in the 1990s, he and other Southwest ranchers began to suspect there was a larger weather pattern afoot. "People started talking about how we've got some major problems out here," he said in an interview. "Do I believe in global warming? Absolutely."

Dramatic weather changes in the West -- whether it is Arizona's decade-long drought or this winter's torrential rains in Southern California -- have pushed some former skeptics to reevaluate their views on climate change. A number of scientists, and some Westerners, are now convinced that global warming is the best explanation for the higher temperatures, rapid precipitation shifts, and accelerated blooming and breeding patterns that are changing the Southwest, one of the nation's most vulnerable ecosystems.

In the face of shrinking water reservoirs, massive forest fires and temperature-related disease outbreaks, several said they now believe that warming is transforming their daily lives. Although it has rained some during the past three months, the state is still struggling with a persistent drought that has hurt its economy, costing cattle-related industries $2.8 billion in 2002.

"Everyone's from Missouri: When they see it, they believe it," said Gregg Garfin, who has assessed the Southwest's climate for the federal government since 1998. "When we used to talk about climate, eyes would glaze over. . . . Then the drought came. The phone started ringing off the hook."

Jonathan Overpeck, who directs the university- and government-funded Institute for the Study of Planet Earth at the University of Arizona, said current drought and weather disruptions signal what is to come over the next century. Twenty-five years ago, he said, scientists produced computer models of the drought that Arizona is now experiencing.

"It's going to get warmer, we're going to have more people, and we're going to have more droughts more frequently and in harsher terms," Overpeck said. "We should be at the forefront of demanding action on global warming because we're at the forefront of the impacts of global warming. . . . In the West we're seeing what's happening now."

There are dissenters who say it is impossible to attribute the recent drought and higher temperatures to global warming. Sherwood Idso, president of the Tempe, Ariz.-based Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, said he does not believe the state's drought "has anything to do with CO{-2} or global warming," because the region experienced more-severe droughts between 1600 and 1800. Idso, who also said he did not believe there is a link between human-generated carbon dioxide emissions and climate change, declined to say who funds his center.

The stakes are enormous for Arizona, which is growing six times faster than the national average and must meet mounting demands for water and space with scarce resources. Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) is urging Arizonans to embrace "a culture of conservation" with water, but some conservationists and scientists wonder whether that will be enough.

Dale Turner of the Nature Conservancy tracks changes in the state's mountaintop "sky islands" -- a region east and south of Tucson that hosts a bevy of rare plants and animals. Human activities over the past century have degraded local habitats, Turner said, and now climate change threatens to push these populations "over the edge."

The Mount Graham red squirrel, on the federal endangered species list since 1987, has been at the center of a long-running fight between environmentalists and development-minded Arizonans. Forest fires and rising temperatures have worsened the animals' plight as they depend on Douglas firs at the top of a 10,720-foot mountain for food and nest-building materials. The population has dipped from about 562 animals in spring 1999 to 264 last fall.

"They are so on the downhill slide," said Thetis Gamberg, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist who has an image of the endangered squirrel on her business card.

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