TUCSON, Ariz. — Desert ecologist Benjamin Wilder has been named director of Tumamoc Hill, an 860-acre ecological reserve and U.S. National Historic Landmark owned and operated by the University of Arizona in partnership with Pima County.
"This is my dream job. I have come full circle since I started as an undergraduate working on buffelgrass control," said Wilder, who began his desert research career at the Desert Laboratory at Tumamoc Hill as an undergraduate student in 2004 and earned his bachelor's degree from the UA Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
After receiving his doctorate from the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences at the University of California, Riverside, Wilder returned to the UA in August 2015 to work with the Consortium for Arizona and Mexico Arid Environments. He has been interim director of Tumamoc Hill since October 2016.
The Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill was established by the Carnegie Institution in 1903 to study how plants adapt to aridity. Tumamoc was officially purchased by the UA in 1956 for the purposes of research and education, continuing an arc of novel scientific pursuits in desert environments. Today, it is one of the longest continually monitored ecological reserves in the world and a thriving hub of desert research. Multiple radiocarbon dates consistently show that the earliest maize was cultivated 4,100 years ago in the Tucson valley at the base of A Mountain and Tumamoc Hill along the flood banks of the Santa Cruz river. This date makes the area adjacent to Tumamoc Hill the longest continuously habited site in the United States.
"The people that walk the hill today are only the most recent chapter in that history, the vantage point from this peak looking over the valley of Tucson continues to draw us up Tumamoc’s slopes," Wilder said. "Now, we have 115 years of science that is the baseline of knowledge of the Sonoran Desert.
"Going forward, it is taking those lessons, both cultural and biotic, to understand how the desert ticks," Wilder said. "It's ticking faster. We know how things have responded in the last 115 years, and we are able to continue to monitor the future change in that historical context. There are a lot of lessons we already have learned about cultural and biological adaptations in a desert landscape, and one of our most important roles is to continue learning those lessons and make them relatable to our community."
Last year, Wilder led the creation of the Tumamoc Tour, a free app that tells the story of the Sonoran Desert through the lens of Tumamoc Hill. He also re-established the original rain water harvesting system on the main laboratory building and the Sonoran plant and agave heritage gardens, and secured new cabinets to ensure the integrity of the most important fossil collection from the Southwest U.S, housed on Tumamoc Hill.
"With this collection, you can pull ancient DNA and ask a whole litany of questions about how adaptation is happening at a population level," Wilder said. "You can use that information to go back in time and open up this treasure trove of a time machine that you can use to predict future change."
Wilder hopes an upcoming capital campaign, Tumamoc Tomorrow, will provide the funding to continue the research and outreach being done on the hill. Some of the planned improvements include:
- The development of a phenology trail in collaboration with the National Phenology Network.
- The implementation of an arts and science program with support from the UA Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry.
- The expansion of the Desert Laboratory library, making it the best collection of Sonoran Desert scholarly work, which will be organized into a searchable database.
- Upgrades to old buildings, laboratory equipment and roads.
- The creation of a new visitor's center at the base of the hill and expanded programing for citizen science programs, field trips, and community classes and workshops.
"It's already happening – we are rebuilding this kind of energy, fueled by people's love for the space," Wilder said. "The work we do here is our history, but also our future."