If the guardian spirit driving Scottsdale's quest to protect its Sonoran Desert environs has a face, it's that of Jane Rau.
Many can share credit for the city's preservation of the McDowell Mountains area and other recent local efforts to shield flora, fauna and wide open scenic spaces from a rising tide of urban growth.
But most of them simply joined a crusade Rau began 20 years ago.
In the early 1980s, Scottsdale doubled its size by annexing land that is now the city's great northern expanse, where Rau's Navajo hogan-style home still sits at the end of a dirt road.
City lights were still far from her home back then, but she saw them coming fast unless Scottsdale's leaders developed a love of nature.
In her 60s at the time, she became a fledgling activist. Rau, who will mark her 81st birthday on Thursday, co-founded the McDowell Sonoran Land Trust preservation advocacy group, joined task forces that spurred the city's McDowell Sonoran Preserve project and served a six-year term on Scottsdale's preserve commission.
She has also been a persistent voice for zoning to protect the rural character and natural terrain of north Scottsdale.
“You look at Jane, and you see the history of saving the desert in Scottsdale. It's etched in her face,’’ said former Mayor Sam Campana.
Admittedly “a bleeding heart at first,” Rau said she learned to come armed with facts and figures when battling in the political arena.
“She became the conscience for the city on treating the desert right. But she found constructive ways to do it . . . She was a yea sayer, not a naysayer,’’ Campana said.
Fellow activist Tony Nelssen enlisted Rau when he formed the Great Sonoran, a group that urged the city to set environmentally conscientious development guidelines.
“She was respected because she offered solutions. She was not in the crowd that just whines,’’ Nelssen said.
“Jane knew you had to do the work when zoning cases were first getting passed, because five years later when you see development resulting from that zoning, it's too late to start complaining,’’ said Carla (her legal name), McDowell Sonoran Land Trust director.
Scottsdale architect Vern Swaback views Rau as “the ideal American citizen, someone who fights for what they believe in but doesn't settle into being single-minded.’’
Settling down isn't the former Hattie Jane Reinhardt's style.
She still takes a four-mile bicycle ride through the desert at sunrise, still makes food and flower arrangements for the elderly she visits at hospitals and nursing homes.
Rau first saw much of the country while traveling in a converted school bus on annual monthlong vacations with her husband, Leonard “Link’’ Rau, and their four adopted children. The widow still drives cross-country to visit relatives and attend national preservation conferences.
In recent years, she has rafted rivers and joined an expedition to the Galapagos Islands, site of Charles Darwin's research on evolution.
But Rau said she's never more enthralled by nature than when looking out her kitchen window as birds, rabbits and other desert critters gather at the watering hole in her back yard.
“God makes so many beautiful things that so many people never see,’’ she said. “That's why I started fighting to keep this desert.’’