Interstate 11

I-11: A Disaster for the Sonoran Desert?

This map shows a few possible routes for I-11 west of the Tucson Mountains. The red route is representative of what is being proposed. As you can see, it has to “thread the needle” between Saguaro National Park and Ironwood Forest National Monument and would completely isolate Saguaro National Park and the Tucson Mountains, severing all wildlife linkages that currently connect this mountain range to other protected open spaces to the east and west. Click on this image for a larger view of the map.


For many years, local community organizations and government agencies in Pima County, AZ have been aware of plans and ideas surrounding the issue of how to accommodate increased traffic flow on Interstate 10, which currently runs directly through downtown Tucson. One idea that has been floated in various forms is to build a brand new freeway west of the Tucson Mountains to “bypass” Interstate 10. This proposed freeway, now called Interstate 11, is abhorrent on many levels, the most significant being that a freeway west of the Tucson Mountains would have to be built directly adjacent to Saguaro National Park and Ironwood Forest National Monument. In addition to these iconic federal parks, there are other protected open spaces that would be negatively impacted such as Pima County-owned Tucson Mountain Park, the Tucson Mitigation Corridor owned by the Bureau of Reclamation and managed by Pima County, open space properties purchased and protected under the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, and tribal lands owned by the Pascua-Yaqui Nation and the Tohono O’odham Nation. To put it simply, Interstate 11 would be a disaster for the Sonoran Desert. 

I-11 Joint Stakeholder Community Planning Group

In 2018, the Arizona Department of Transportation and the Federal Highways Administration convened a diverse coalition of community groups to offer input on two proposed routes for Interstate 11: 1) west of the Tucson Mountains, as described above, or 2) co-located with the existing Interstate 10. At the end of this advisory process, many of the involved groups formed the I-11 Joint Stakeholder Community Planning Group. In August 2018, the I-11 Joint Stakeholder Community Planning Group released the following press release (a more lengthy position statement written by the group, along with a list of the groups involved, can be found HERE):

Citizens Convened by Federal and State Highway Departments Strongly Oppose Highway in Avra Valley

Stakeholders find Common Ground in Downtown Route to Create a Sustainable City

Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHwA) recently convened representatives of several stakeholder organizations in a process to explore two alternative routes for the proposed Interstate 11 through Pima County. Stakeholders have developed a consensus position that re-designing I-10 and I-19 to accommodate co-location with I-11 could have a positive effect on downtown revitalization while stating strong opposition to an “I-10 bypass” in Avra Valley.“A freeway that borders Tucson Mountain Park, Tohono O’odham tribal lands, Saguaro National Park, and Ironwood Forest National Monument makes absolutely zero sense,” stated Carolyn Campbell, Executive Director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection. “The direct and cumulative effects of a freeway to these natural and cultural iconic places of the Sonoran Desert simply cannot be mitigated. This route should not be under consideration.”

Stakeholders believe that there are shortcomings associated with the federal review process that focuses on new highway construction.  However, “we believe that there could be a significant opportunity to address some of the historic negative consequences that resulted from the construction of I-10,” said Gene Einfrank, Menlo Park Neighborhood Association President. “The building of I-10 physically divided our community and diminished the quality of life of our downtown and other neighborhoods along the highway. Instead of simply adding new lanes to our existing highway, we should consider redesigning portions of it—either going underground or suspended—so that we can reconnect our city.” 

Moreover, stakeholders encourage a broader look at future transportation options, focusing on changes to the management of the existing highway to reduce congestion, including pricing, scheduling, and other programs; technologies that improve traffic flows; and enhancements to the rail system, including light rail and intermodal transportation.

The group recommends ADOT and FHwA refer to the I-11 Super Corridor study final document, which was submitted to ADOT in 2016, to draw inspiration on a comprehensive design. The Sustainable Cities Lab, hosted at the UA College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture, completed this transdisciplinary study on the I-11 corridor along with Arizona State University and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. UA’s study area focused on opportunities from Marana to the south of downtown Tucson. Their outcomes incorporate the addition of light and heavy rail, walking, cycling, new technology for controlling traffic as well as incorporating alternative forms of energy production and transportation.

Current Process and Next Steps

Throughout the fall of 2018, community partners knew that federal agencies were working on a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the “Tier 1” level of review of Interstate 11. Maps of various route alternatives had been circulated in prior years, with the two possible routes described above – west of the Tucson Mountains or co-located with Interstate 10 – being the final two in the running. We expected the DEIS to be released in January 2019 but the 5-week government shutdown ground the process to a halt. Now, we expect the DEIS to be released on April 1, 2019, although there has been no formal announcement about this.

In the meantime, the Coalition has expanded our Wildlife Camera Monitoring Program to include new wildlife cameras in Avra Valley along the proposed I-11 route to document the diversity of wildlife that live in this area and would be harmed by a new freeway. Our monitoring of this area has resulted in beautiful photos of wildlife, along with scat evidence of mountain lions in late 2018! We also continue to work with our partners on the I-11 Joint Stakeholder Community Planning Group to stay organized and ready to hit the ground running once the DEIS is released. If the preferred alternative in the DEIS is the route west of the Tucson Mountains as we expect, we will be organizing our supporters and the larger community to oppose this abhorrent, and frankly insane, proposal. 

Join us today in this important fight by donating or volunteering – thank you for your support of the Sonoran Desert! 

Map of proposed route west of the Tucson Mountains


Photos of Saguaro National Park


Saguaro National Park is a national treasure populated by large stands of the Sonoran Desert’s most iconic plant, the saguaro cactus. Since Interstate 10 already runs along the park’s eastern flank, an additional freeway directly to the west would isolate and endanger this national park forever. Photos courtesy Saguaro National Park/NPS.

This saguaro cactus stands tall and greets the sun in Saguaro National Park-Tucson Mountain District. Photo courtesy Saguaro National Park/NPS.


Photos of Ironwood Forest National Monument


Scenic vista of Ironwood Forest National Monument, home to one of the largest “forests” of saguaros and ironwood trees in the world. Nearly 600 plant species and 121 vertebrate animal species call the monument home. Photo by Bob Wick/BLM-CC.


Ragged Top Mountain is one of the most recognizable vistas in Ironwood Forest National Monument. It is also home to a healthy population of desert bighorn sheep that occasionally roam and migrate to the Tucson Mountains to the east, and historically even further to the Tortolita and Santa Catalina Mountains. Photo by Bob Wick/BLM-CC.


Photos of wildlife that would be harmed by an I-11 route west of the Tucson Mountains


This Nelson’s Bighorn Sheep ram (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) was photographed in the northern end of the Tucson Mountains in 2016 after likely migrating from Ironwood Forest National Monument to the west (and directly through the area proposed for an I-11 route). This ram was one of two desert bighorn sheep spotted throughout the Tucson Mountains until they finally traveled further afield. Photo by Brian Jones.


This mule deer was photographed in the Tucson Mountains among dense Sonoran Desert foliage. Photo by Thomas Wiewandt.

All four animals below were photographed by the same remote wildlife camera managed by the Coalition and our amazing volunteers in the northern Tucson Mountains. Coyotes, javelinas, foxes, and bobcats are four of many small mammals that populate the Tucson Mountains and would be harmed by a new freeway west of the Tucson Mountains.