The Phoenix area has consistently endured among the highest population growth rates in the country since the 1970s. The number of people flocking to this hot desert oasis rose by 63 percent between 1970 and 1980; 42 percent in the 1980s; and another 22 percent, up to 2.3 million, in the first half of the 1990s. While many of these people settled in the city of Phoenix (the city population was up 18 percent between 1990 and 1996), many more chose the surrounding area. (Population outside Phoenix jumped 121 percent in the 1970s and is still on the rise in the 1990s.)
The land area comprising Phoenix and its counties has also dramatically increased, almost doubling in 20 years from 1970 to 1990. In the first half of this decade, it climbed another 9 percent. The number of developed acres within the metro region rose by almost 50 percent between 1982 and 1992. Phoenix now occupies more land than the city of Los Angeles, while the population is doubling every 20 years (The Arizona Republic). Phoenix's Maricopa County was the fastest growing county in the country from 1990 to 1997, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
As is the case with so many sprawling cities, Phoenix's growth has been poorly managed. The area's growth is perhaps more costly to the natural environment nearby than to the human inhabitants. In the northeastern suburbs of Phoenix, development is running into the Arizona Uplands Division of the Sonoran Desert, an area that is home to more than 2,500 plant species and many kinds of rare desert animals and is among the most bio-diversified regions in the country.
The Sonoran Desert, North America's largest desert, covers about 120,000 square miles in the American Southwest and spans deeply into Northern Mexico. For more than 10,000 years, human inhabitants have roughed the harsh, arid desert environment by forging a balance with existing species. Phoenix's recent and rapid growth has stretched that balance to its extreme. Development is destroying the valley's pristine desert at the rate of an acre an hour, the bulk of that coming from ever-sprawling Phoenix. Man-made development has fragmented habitats and imported non-native plant species have increased competition for food and water.
Development into the Sonoran Desert has not just meant construction of new homes and strip malls. Since 1992, according to the Arizona Golf Association, an average of six golf courses have been built each year in the Phoenix area, increasing the total to 165. The solid profits reaped by developers from these golf courses and other high-priced subdivisions are coming at a high price to the Sonoran Desert and its wildlife.