Fred A. Bernstein

Sprawl Outruns Arizona's Biosphere

Designed for isolation, it's now surrounded

Published in The New York Times, May 28, 2006

IN 1991, eight researchers in dark blue Star Trek-style uniforms entered Biosphere 2 - a vast terrarium in the Arizona desert north of Tucson - hoping to spend two years inside without importing food, water or even air. The goal was to see whether the sealed environment, considered a microcosm of the Earth's, could become self-sustaining.

As it turns out, the real science experiment was going on outside, as development conquered vast swaths of the Sonoran Desert. The Biosphere, miles from nowhere when it was built in the 1980's, is now within the reach of a building boom streaking north from Tucson and south from Phoenix (and which some demographers say will eventually join the two cities, once 100 miles apart).

The Biosphere was designed to simulate the Earth's environment. By succumbing to sprawl, it may have done just that.

After spending a reported $200 million on the Biosphere, the Texas oil heir Ed Bass is about to sell the building and its surrounding 1,658 acres to Fairfield Homes of Tucson.

Richard Foerster of Tucson Realty & Trust, a veteran broker in the area, estimated to be worth about $25,000 an acre, or $40 million. At that price, Mr. Bass would be losing at least $160 million.

Martin Bowen, the president of Decisions Investments, a holding company controlled by Mr. Bass, said that there were "ongoing discussions" with Fairfield Homes about ways to save the three-acre Biosphere building, and that Mr. Bass would "prefer that it be used for the purpose it was built for."

But, Mr. Bowen said, Mr. Bass's contract with Fairfield does not require the buyer to preserve the structure. That means, he said, that "when the deal closes, probably later this year, our options for saving the Biosphere will be over."

It could be replaced by a housing development called Biosphere Estates. In January, Fairfield registered that name and a number of variants with the State of Arizona.

David Williamson, the president of Fairfield, said only that the deal is "in escrow," and that he would not comment on plans for the site.

If Biosphere Estates is built, it will join dozens of other new developments in Pinal County, including SaddleBrooke Resort, an upscale retirement development just south of the Biosphere property.

Last year, there were nearly 19,000 building permits issued for new houses in the county, triple the number in 2003, according to Paul Larkin, the county's tax assessor.

"And that's just the tip of the iceberg," he said. "Driving in to work this morning, I took a different route, and I saw two new subdivisions that I didn't know existed."

The population of Pinal (rhymes with canal) County, currently about 250,000, will probably reach one million by about 2020, said Elliott D. Pollack, an economist and real estate analyst based in Scottsdale, Ariz. "The growth is coming from Tucson in the south and Phoenix in the north," he said. "Pinal is where the available land is."

Twenty years ago, Mr. Bass chose the Biosphere site, in the town of Oracle, because of its remoteness at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains. The goal was to bring in groups of "bionauts" for two years at a time for 100 years.

But during the first two-year mission that began in 1991, the Biosphere was beset by one problem after another: Oxygen dwindled, and the sea became acidic. Crops failed, causing the bionauts to lose weight rapidly, while ants and other insects thrived.

Biosphere administrators later admitted that they had secretly pumped 600,000 cubic feet of fresh air into the Biosphere, supplemented the bionauts' home-grown diet with stored food and smuggled in emergency supplies. Then, two bionauts were arrested for breaking the Biosphere's seals. Soon the 100-year experiment was abandoned, and the Biosphere was reopened as a tourist site. Visitors were now allowed inside, where the sights include 3,800 species of plants and a million-gallon sea.

Joaquin Ruiz, the dean of the College of Science at the University of Arizona in Tucson, said that because of its size, the Biosphere is "an important instrument."

Dr. Ruiz participated in a conference at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington in March 2005 to determine whether the Biosphere could still serve a useful function.

"The consensus was that it could," Dr. Ruiz said. "It is indeed an enormous terrarium, but the scaling of that terrarium allows you do to large-scale ecology experiments that cannot be done anywhere else." For example, he said, the Biosphere could be used to simulate the effects of the loss of small amounts of moisture in a desert, helping scientists understand the effects of a drought.

Now it looks as if those experiments will never happen.

On a recent Friday, traffic was bumper to bumper on Oracle Road, outside the entrance to the Biosphere grounds. Roads were torn up, as construction crews dug trenches for water mains to serve the growing population. But at the Biosphere, there were about 10 cars in the parking lot and about that many people in the visitor center.

"Clearly, you can't run it as a tourist attraction," said Mr. Bowen, the president of Decisions. "It's too expensive to maintain." (According to a sales brochure for the Biosphere property, Mr. Bass has spent $18 million on maintenance and another $9 million on major improvements in the last eight years.)

Because of the investment and maintenance costs, "you can't just keep it sitting empty," Mr. Bowen said.

He compared the Biosphere with the Spruce Goose, the giant plane built by Howard Hughes. "That's a good analogy," Mr. Bowen said. "The Spruce Goose is a fantastic aircraft, but what good is it sitting in a hangar?"

Mr. Bass, who is 60, was not available to answer questions. His spokeswoman, Terrell Lamb, said that Mr. Bass still considers the Biosphere "a unique apparatus for the study of ecological science."

Mr. Bass, who serves on the boards of the New York Botanical Garden and the World Wildlife Fund, has made efforts to save the Biosphere. In 1995, his company brought in the Earth Institute, a respected environmental program at Columbia University, to operate the site. But the partnership unraveled, and Decisions ended up suing Columbia for breach of contract. The lawsuit was settled in September 2003, and Columbia ended its involvement that December.

Soon thereafter, Mr. Bass directed CB Richard Ellis to sell the 140 acres at the center of the site, where the Biosphere and dozens of auxiliary buildings were constructed. According to the sales brochure, the property presented "an unmatched redevelopment opportunity."

But Jerry Hawkins, a vice president of CB Richard Ellis, said that potential buyers proved to be more interested in the land than in the buildings. So Decisions opted to sell the entire Biosphere site of 1,658 acres. The property "was offered unpriced," Mr. Hawkins said.

Decisions eventually received 11 bids, he said, and Fairfield Homes' offer was not the highest. "Price was not the No. 1 issue for the seller," Mr. Hawkins explained, suggesting that Fairfield was open to discussions about the Biosphere's future.

Mr. Hawkins would not say how much Fairfield is paying, but Mr. Bowen said that Mr. Bass was more interested in finding "the highest and best use" for the Biosphere than in recovering what he spent.

"Forget the money," Mr. Bowen said. "It's sunk money. What matters is that it's a fantastic piece of equipment."