Birth of Saguaro National Park


The thick saguaro forest at the foot of the Rincons — 1935


Homer LeRoy Shantz
(South Africa, 14 September 1919)

Homer Shantz was a young botanist when he visited the Hill in the second decade of the twentieth century. There Forrest Shreve introduced him to the plight of Tumamoc's saguaros. They had produced no babies for decades. No one believed the species could survive much longer in Tucson. And no one would have believed that Shantz would get fired for trying to save them.

Hope took the shape of an extremely dense stand of saguaro growing about sixteen miles east of Tucson in the foothills of the Rincon Mts. In 1920, the Natural History Society of the University of Arizona decided to try to set aside some of that land to rescue the cactus. But the project failed for lack of funds.
In 1928, Homer Shantz became President of the University of Arizona and things changed.
By virtue of his office, the President of the University of Arizona had resouces and connections not necessarily available to a natural history society. Shantz got busy. In 1929, he contacted the National Park Service. Nothing doing. So he decided to commit university funds. He commissioned a person to buy rights to the land and got 480 acres of saguaro land for the U. Then he spent more money and got more rights, this time for the State of Arizona. He was aiming for a nine square mile tract (5760 acres) that he would call the "Tanque Verde Cactus Forest."

President Shantz had to hurry though. His influence was largely limited to mucketymucks in the Republican Party, and the Dems had won the 1932 presidential election. He succeeded. A few days before the end of his term as President of the USA, 1 March 1933, Herbert Hoover signed the executive order proclaiming the Saguaro National Monument. Yet most of the desert portion of the monument still belonged to Arizona or to the university itself.
Meanwhile the University's funds were dwindling in the face of the Great Depression. By 1936, the Board of Regents needed its money back and tried every political lever and realty trick to sell the land. They went all the way to Pres. Franklin Roosevelt. Useless. Even the USA itself was short! Hapless President Shantz was fired for his reckless improvidence!

Today of course, we understand that President Shantz was a visionary. The Monument has acquired much more land, including all its western section. It has morphed into a great and treasured national park. Homer Shantz is both beloved and honored at the university, which even named an important agricultural building after him. And none of this would have taken place without all that saguaro research of the Spaldings and Forrest Shreve on Tumamoc Hill.

Did it save the saguaro in our city? Well, the irony is it did not! Saguaro are alive, abundant and quite well, thank you. But not because of Homer Shantz and Saguaro NP. The truth is that they were never in trouble at all.

Only after many decades of research did we figure out that times of successful saguaro reproduction are rare and episodic. About once or twice a century, a local population has a boom period. The first decades of the twentieth century were simply not one of those periods on Tumamoc Hill. Since then, there has been a really strong one and saguaro again flourish on the Hill.