Ecological Rough-Rider

HE'S THE CHAIRMAN of the local Sierra Club.

He's also a multi-millionaire developer who owns and builds apartment buildings. He's a hard-core preservationist who declines the term "environmentalist." He's a Republican, and a not a very liberal one; if it were his call, Saddam Hussein would have been sent bye-bye long ago. He loves to hike, raft and ride his mountain bike and horses. He's a member of the National Rifle Association and the Tucson Rod & Gun Club. He's a populist who currently lives in a gated community. He thinks his industry--in which he's a major player, at one time owning more than 1,000 apartment units--gets away with murder. And he's a strong believer in restrained growth.

He's Rich Genser, a unique individual in this town. And many can't quite figure him out.

Feature It isn't because he's shy about telling you where he stands. He's usually there at public hearings giving politicians an earful, particularly on environmental issues. He writes letters to editors, public officials and others. He's got strong opinions concerning just about everything. And on a bad day he probably scares his own side as bad as his opponents. Like Gen. George Patton, Genser likes it that way.

Given some historical perspective, however, Genser's not that hard to figure out. Again, like Patton, he's a throwback. Most of Genser's views closely parallel those of another guy he doesn't mind being compared to--Teddy Roosevelt.

Like Genser, Roosevelt loved the outdoors and fought to preserve it; was from a big eastern city and fell in love with the natural beauty of the west; was a wealthy man who was suspicious--and at times downright contemptuous--of big business. And like Genser, Roosevelt cared about working people. He was a patriotic nationalist who believed in a strong military and American presence around the globe. And he spent a lot of time at the shooting range. Roosevelt has been called an uncompromising moralist. That description fits Genser just fine.

Richard Edward Genser was born in South Orange, New Jersey, in 1944, grew up in Newark, and graduated from Colorado State University in 1966. He served in the New Jersey Air National Guard and rose to staff sergeant. A successful Chevrolet dealer in Irvington, New Jersey, he moved to Tucson in 1987. He has one son from his first marriage, 17-year-old Jason, who shares his father's love of the outdoors. Genser is currently married to his second wife, Claire, who also enjoys many of those activities.

He's no newcomer when it to preservation of our wild spaces. He's been a Sierra Club member since the late '60s "when we weren't considered radicals," and participated in saving New Jersey's Great Swamp.

"My father and uncles used to hunt ducks there," Genser says. "They told me how many ducks there had been. I thought there were still a lot, but then I noticed the decline. That we were able to restore and preserve this natural area has been good not only for tourists but for the quality of life of the people who live there."

Genser is big on that quality-of-life issue. "The outdoors isn't something that should be enjoyed just by rich people," he says. "It's important for all of us."

He tells the story of a woman who called him in tears a few years back. "She lived in a trailer below River Road. One of her biggest enjoyments was sitting in a lawn chair behind her home and enjoying the peace and quiet of the wash that was there and seeing the birds and wildlife. She woke up one morning to the bulldozers cementing it in. She didn't know who to call, so she tried the Sierra Club. It was too late, and that was tragic--that lady's quality of life had been destroyed."

Genser believes that preservation of natural washes is a key issue for our community. "We've destroyed 90 percent of them in Arizona," he says. "We're a desert--they contain a disproportionate amount of our native wildlife and plants. Washes are natural parks. They're a great place for human activity too--like taking walks. And you can't get the bean-counters who build to grasp that it isn't that hard or expensive to leave them alone. I was part of one apartment project where it would have been simple to leave a natural wash. I was told it would cut the profit margin from 39.8 percent to 39.6 percent. So what? We were all rich already!"

ALTHOUGH THE SIERRA CLUB, created almost a century ago to champion national and state preservation issues, is focused on broader issues and bigger battles, Genser notes the 2,700-member local Rincon Chapter has formally endorsed many positions on local issues, including wash preservation. Its members are active in many other groups that concern themselves with local policy.

"The problem locally is that what ordinances we have are weak, and then local governments either give waivers or don't enforce them," Genser says. "But the thought that we need to get together again, as proposed by Supervisor Mike Boyd, to discuss what to do about the problems of urban sprawl and the impact of growth, is ridiculous--we already know what the problem is and what to do. Eighteen environmental, conservation and neighborhood groups spelled it out for them in three pages: Preserve washes, tighten grading and hillside ordinances, and expand the buffers. A majority of the supervisors support that consensus."

Genser bristles over terms like "tree-hugger" and "no-growther."

"Those epithets lend little to the honest debate over how our admitted growth problems should be handled," he says. "Land speculators and developers have no legal or moral right to be guaranteed a profit. We've made many thoughtfully conceived proposals that will benefit the total population, instead of enriching the already rich. I've worked with the finest people who have the highest integrity and are not selfishly motivated. The natural beauty of this--and other areas--is why people move here. Destroying it for short-term gain makes little sense, and hiding behind name-calling proves nothing."

Along with the Sierra Club, Genser supports the initiative setting up Urban Growth Boundaries (UGB) in Arizona.

"It's only a first step and the developers are organizing to oppose it," Genser says. "Gov. Hull's so-called alternative is an attempt to confuse voters and gut the UGB with a counter proposal. The whole state is fed up with current growth policies. The folks in rural areas are inundated with new development, and it's killing their lifestyle and hitting them in the pocketbook. Maricopa County voters are figuring it out, too--that's why Hull is essentially fronting for the developers. She may turn out to be Fife in a skirt. You'll know if she signs the bill prohibiting local communities from down-zoning."

Genser would go further than the UGB: "If you really want to slow down growth and sprawl and inject genuine equity into the tax structure, repeal those provisions in the tax code that allow speculators to rezone large tracts of agricultural land and continue to dodge taxes by keeping a few cows on them and claiming an agricultural exemption. If Rocking K or Rancho Vistoso or Canoa are still real ranches, then anybody with a couple of tomato plants in their house should get a farm subsidy."

Unlike many of his environmental colleagues, he isn't opposed to ranching on public lands. "The real problem isn't cows on the land, it's over-grazing. I can tell the difference between real ranchers and farmers and land speculators. The tax code should too. I'd rather see cattle on open space than more tract homes and strip malls. Ranchers should quit being afraid of all environmentalists--we've got more in common than many believe."

GENSER SEES A grander coalition for that open-space preservation he so passionately supports. "My position is really simple: Preserve it first, then we'll fight about who gets to use it."

And he isn't opposed to all land speculation. "I have great respect for business people, including land speculators. Profit is fine. I don't criticize people for being rich, but for greed and un-needed destruction. And I really object when they pretend to be environmentally 'sensitive' by boxing up a few trees that will die anyway and then clear-cutting a couple hundred acres. That's crap and everybody knows it.

"The other problem I have is something even Mike Boyd admits is wrong--growth that doesn't pay for itself and needs subsidies from the rest of us for schools, roads, cops and a host of services. Real impact fees would be a lot more than the pittance local builders fought so hard to stop."

Take most flood-control projects. "They're often just welfare for the rich and sometimes for the stupid,"Genser says. "If you're dumb enough to buy a house where you're looking up at the bottom of a bridge, why should the rest of us pay to protect you? Where washes were rechanneled and cemented, changing the flow, that's a problem government caused and should take responsibility for. But when builders have been allowed to alter sheet-flooding below them, endangering the homes of others, that's a violation of property rights that should be paid for by the offending party."

Genser opposed the recent county road bonds package. "You move somewhere where there's a two-lane road, and now the new arrivals like you have caused more traffic, so you need a four-lane road--why is that our problem and why should the rest of us pay to solve it?"

Even though he disagreed with the Board of Supervisors' majority on the road bonds, Genser isn't critical of most supervisors as individual politicians--with the exception of Boyd.

"He exhibited initial sincerity on conservation issues and then totally reversed himself," Genser complains. "One of the last acts of the old board occurred when Boyd joined (former supervisors) Marsh and Moore in allowing Rocking K to expand into the buffer (surrounding Saguaro National Park East). His attempt to appoint some loaded blue-ribbon panel on sprawl is nothing but a stall and a copy of what the Governor is trying on Urban Growth Boundaries. And he shouldn't get any credit for what the new board is trying to do in passing tougher growth and sprawl ordinances. He didn't really do anything except bring up the subject--his actions were limited and hesitant. It was Sharon Bronson, supported by Raul Grijalva and Dan Eckstrom, who actually did something to move the process forward."

When Boyd argued against opposing a land swap between ASARCO and the U.S. Forest Service which would have handed over thousands of acres of the scenic Santa Rita Mountains to the mining company, Genser wrote Boyd a letter in which he said simply: "What you do speaks so loudly that we can't hear what you're saying."

Genser gives high marks to both Bronson and Grijalva: "She's bright, solid on the issues, and doesn't waffle. You might not always agree with her, but she does her homework and works hard representing her constituency. Grijalva is receptive and supportive of most of what we believe in. I only wish the two of them would get along better and plan things together."

He also has good things to say about Supervisor Ray Carroll: "Basically solid, good business and professional background. He's got a handle on many growth issues and has been a stand-up guy."

And he has no real quarrel with Dan Eckstrom: "He does a great job of representing his constituents, too, and generally votes in a reasonable manner. I only wish he'd spend more time talking with us about environmental issues that affect his district--like air and water quality. Environmental concerns aren't just for rich people. It's the poor who get screwed the most by bad environmental policy."

He's got mixed feelings about his fellow Republican, U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe: "A fine gentleman who's been great in many areas, but he makes no sense on many environmental issues. He's been too close to mining and development interests. And now his response to the local pygmy owl controversy is talk about 'reform' of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

"Nixon signed that law and it had the overwhelming support of both parties in both houses of Congress. It had popular support then and now. We're going to start bumping up against it every day because we've pushed more species to the brink--the pygmy owl is just one example. Kolbe wants it 'reformed' because it's become inconvenient for developers. Reform it? Private groups have to sue now to get it enforced."

But Genser sees the ESA as more than just a last-gasp measure for American wildlife.

"Restoration is possible in many areas," he says. "And we ought to remember that it's the ESA that saved the American Bald Eagle."

GENSER IS MORE THAN just a theoretical conservationist. He's hiked, climbed, boated, rafted or ridden horses through many acres of America's wilderness, from the Florida Everglades to Colorado sand dunes. He not only wants to preserve what's there, he'd like to put some of it back like it was.

And he's got a definite agenda for Arizona. "This is a beautiful place," he says. "That's why people want to live here. To destroy that beauty is a terrible thing. If those in charge were really serious about preservation, here's what they'd really do. First, build a high-speed train on existing right-of-way all the way from Nogales to Salt Lake City, with flat cars for autos so you'd be able to move around when you arrived. That'd take tons of air pollution away, improve highway safety, and reduce road-maintenance and construction costs. I have nothing against cars or air-conditioning, or other things we all find convenient, but there's rational ways to reduce usage.

"Next, pass tough statewide wash, hillside, and native plant laws--and enforce them. No more saguaro and ironwood clearcuts. And reform state land policy to quit defining 'highest use' as 'best.' And then repeal every law that stops cities and counties from controlling and restraining growth however the local population wants, and allow all jurisdictions to charge genuine impact fees."

Would Genser ever be a candidate for public office? It's clear that should he ever jump into any local race, he'd be a 900-pound gorilla.

"I've thought about it, but I like to speak my mind, and that would offend a whole lot of people, particularly the Big Boys. I don't think I could get elected, but I wouldn't back off."

And that, of course, sounds like another guy who offended the power structure, never backed off, and always told you where he stood. His name was Theodore Roosevelt. TW

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