Our Long Love Affair with the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

With COVID-19 causing nonprofits across the nation to struggle, most are trying to adapt to these difficult times. The world as we knew it has changed, including the viability of local nonprofit organizations. Due to ongoing global uncertainty, no one knows when organizations will be allowed to reopen, or what the future looks like even after that. Despite the current challenges, one well-known local organization, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, continues their mission to protect and educate on the local Sonoran Desert region. 

While the Desert Museum’s gates have temporarily closed, their education, research, conservation, and living collections remain active. The plants and animals need care, staff need support, and programs must continue! Many people do not realize that the Desert Museum does not receive regular annual state, federal, or tax subsidies to operate. The majority of operational support for the Museum comes directly from visitor admissions, memberships, other earned income, and donations. However, with zero visitors and millions in losses, this is a critical time to generate philanthropic support, so the Museum is able come out stronger on the other side! With the help of generous donations, the Desert Museum will continue to employ their staff at a reduced level, provide excellent care for the animals and plants, and transition to offer online art and education classes.

Recognizing the Desert Museum’s urgent need during this unprecedented time, the P&M Baldwin Foundation stepped up immediately to make a leadership gift of $500,000 in support of the Desert Museum. “The need for us to make this substantial donation is now, and we hope it will point the way for others,” says the Foundation Secretary. The P&M Baldwin Foundation was created to support the Desert Museum and Desert Museum Art Institute. The Foundation’s priority focus is conservation through art education. Their significantly generous leadership gift has inspired more supporters to “join them” and take action just like Nick Waser and Mary Price did along with their six-figure donation and this incredible story below.

Our Long Love Affair with the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Nick Waser and Mary Price

Is there really “love at first sight”?  That’s an easy one: the answer is “YES!”  And this includes not only love between people, but also love of places.  The two of us first arrived in Tucson at different times and from different directions, but we both were hopelessly smitten by the Sonoran Desert.  And Tucson. And our love affair has not been brief: it began in the early 1970s, lost none of its passion as we spent three decades away, and has only grown stronger in the sixteen years since we returned to The Old Pueblo.  

Here’s our story in brief.  In the mid 1960s Mary’s father, an officer in the United States Navy, was transferred from Virginia to California.  Her mother drove the rest of the family from the east coast, and teenage Mary woke from a nap as they entered the Tucson Basin, stunned by the beauty of purple shadows on the Catalinas.  She vowed to return, and did so in 1971 to begin her doctoral studies in ecology at the University of Arizona. Nick arrived a year later with the same purpose. Six years later we finished our degrees and had to leave Tucson to pursue academic careers.  We resolved to return.


What did the Baja Arizona—Sonora Region give us?  Its compelling beauty in all its moods—from dramatic monsoons to cleansing heat to chromatic sunsets to winter snows—and in all of its manifestations, from sky island mountain ranges to forests of saguaros to creosote flats to the Sea of Cortez.  Immersion in its fascinating natural history of plants and animals with unique adaptations and interactions that taught us to observe and led us to mature as scientists. The diversity and aliveness of its cultures and peoples. 

And what institutions enabled our coming of age as ecologists?  The University of Arizona, of course, and the Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill, and Saguaro National Park, and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and Tucson Mountain Park, and the Santa Rita Experimental Range—and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.  The Desert Museum graciously hosted some of our first forays into scientific research and teaching, and its beautiful displays and grounds fast-tracked our understanding of local ecology.


After leaving Tucson we worked in Nova Scotia, Utah, Colorado, and California—and abroad—coming back to Tucson to recharge our batteries whenever opportunity presented.  Finally, in 2004, we took early retirement and returned permanently. We began to rebuild our connections so that we could give back to the community that had nourished us—after all, any successful love affair involves reciprocity!

How have we been giving back?  So far, mostly by volunteering.  As adjunct professors at the University of Arizona we’ve helped to advise students; we’ve volunteered to pull invasive buffelgrass in Saguaro National Park; we’ve helped the League of Women Voters to register and educate voters; we’ve joined the Desert Museum’s Science and Conservation Council, which advises the Museum’s Staff and Trustees, and Mary is serving her first term as a Desert Museum Trustee.


But now, with the COVID-19 crisis upon us, it is time to do more.  The Desert Museum is an icon of our city and region whose mission—to foster love, appreciation, and understanding of the Sonoran Desert—is critically important to our community.  Having to close its gates to visitors removes the Desert Museum’s major source of income, without removing the need to care for its living collections, to retain its skilled staff, and to continue its ongoing conservation and education programs.  The need is great, and so we have fast-forwarded our planned giving to made a major financial pledge to assist the Desert Museum now

We hope that you will be inspired by the story of our love affair with Tucson to join us in supporting our unique and wonderful Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum!

Mary & Nick

Nick Waser and Mary Price are Emeritus Professors of Biology from the University of California Riverside and Adjunct Professors in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of Arizona.  They hold Ph.D. degrees from UA and have taught and done research in ecology nationally and internationally over the past five decades. They sketch their surroundings using watercolor and other media as a way to sharpen their observations; Nick’s small saguaro sketch is an example of this connection between art and science—a connection the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum also showcases.


The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is so fortunate to have supporters like Nick Waser, Mary Price, the P & M Baldwin Foundation, and more who have pledged to sustain the organization’s ongoing work. Thanks to them, and supporters like you, every bit helps. Donations will allow the Desert Museum to continue to inspire people to live in harmony with the natural world by fostering love, appreciation, and understanding of the Sonoran Desert! We are all in this together.  You can learn more here: www.desertmuseum.org/donate 


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Breana Besemer says:

    Thank you for your generous support and love for the museum. It means soooo much to me as a ten-year staff member who loves my place of work as much as my grandparents before me who came to visit and brought me often growing up.


  2. Boyd Stewart II says:

    Open the museum again and you might find support from among the people to whom you have closed it off!


    1. desertmuseum says:

      Hi Boyd, the Desert Museum has been open since June 16, 2020. You are welcome to learn more about the latest events, programs, and other happenings at the Museum at desertmuseum.org!


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