Broken Trust

Saving some patches of our vanishing desert depends on state land reform. Just don't expect to see that happen anytime soon.

The Ironwood Forest of the Tortolita Fan remains one of the most spectacular desert patches in urban Pima County. Stretching from the Tortolita Mountains down between Marana and Oro Valley, the lush mix of saguaros, mesquite bosques and riparian streams forms the ideal habitat for a rich variety of wildlife, including the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, the tiny raptor whose listing as an endangered species launched the county's Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.

So you might think that preserving the Tortolita Fan would be near the top of the list of land snatched up to preserve critical habitat.

But when Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry released his most recent version of the plan, he didn't include any of the northwest side among in the "emerging reserves framework," a sketch of specific areas that will serve as the backbone of the county's conservation contract with the federal government.

The five reserves on the urban perimeter include areas in the Altar Valley, the Cienega Valley, the San Pedro Valley, the Ironwood Forest National Monument and the Canoa Ranch area. (See map.)

The county's failure to set aside reserve lands in the Tortolita Fan put a big hole in the conservation plan, according to Carolyn Campbell, the environmental kingpin who has been riding herd on the county's planning effort as executive director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection. She finds the decision to sidestep the region particularly troubling, because it's prime habitat for the vanishing pygmy owl, whose current status as an endangered species remains the subject of an ongoing court fight.

So why did Huckelberry leave the Tortolita Fan out of the reserve plan? He says a big chunk of the best desert that's yet to be developed in that area remains under the control of the State Land Department, which holds about 44,700 acres in the county's 220,000-acre Tortolita Fan planning area. While the county would like to set aside some of that state land, efforts to negotiate with the state remain on hold.

The remaining parcels in private hands are too expensive--going for somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000 an acre--and too scattered to be worth the cost of preserving them, says Huckelberry.

"If I have two competing properties, both of the same biological values, and they may be in different geographic areas, I probably should choose the one that has the least cost," he adds.

So far, the Board of Supervisors is backing Huckelberry. Republican Ann Day says, "Small patches are just too expensive to buy, and we want to purchase land that will give us the biggest bang for the buck"; Democrat Richard Elias laments, "You can't buy land if you don't have a willing seller"; and Ray Carroll notes, "We could have all the money in the world. It's hard to override the state."

Campbell acknowledges the challenge of dealing with the State Land Department, but she argues that the county should be focusing on acquiring some smaller, privately owned parcels.

"Sometimes, the county has to bite the bullet and buy more expensive land," says Campbell, adding that the price of land in the area is only going to climb.

Huckelberry says buying what's available on the market for the biological reserve "doesn't make a lot of good sense."

Democratic Supervisor Sharon Bronson, whose District 3 includes the Tortolita fan, insists the board remains committed to preserving more land in the area, but the State Land Department remains "an obstacle."

"It is impossible to get any kind of serious acquisition on the northwest side, because state land holds most of those in trust," says Bronson. "Unless we have state land reform, it will likely not happen."

Up at the Arizona Legislature, prospects for that state land reform look dimmer by the day. Although both GOP leaders and Gov. Janet Napolitano declared the topic a top priority at the start of the session, there's no comprehensive package on the table. A cattle-centric plan designed by Sen. Jake Flake, a rancher himself, collapsed in recent weeks. Other bills submitted by Rep. Tom O'Halleran died in committee, if they even managed to get a hearing. The only major legislation left alive is a $6 million appropriation to allow the Land Department to expand planning efforts, although Senate President Ken Bennett proposed a new plan proposing to rapidly sell off some 200,000 acres of state trust land earlier this week.

Why is state trust land reform so complicated? There are a lot of stakeholders whose goals are at odds with each other. The education crowd wants to see as much money as possible generated by the trust lands to supplement appropriations from stingy lawmakers. Environmentalists want to preserve sensitive lands at a low cost. Homebuilders want a steady supply of land. Ranchers want to preserve grazing rights.

The knotty tangle has its roots in territorial days, when politicians didn't worry overmuch about preserving the desert when drawing up maps. When Arizona became a state in 1912, part of the deal set aside squares of land in a checkerboard pattern across the state to benefit a variety of future beneficiaries, primarily the public schools. With some additional federal gifts and swaps over the next few decades, the total amount of state trust land peaked at about 10.7 million acres.

Rather than sell the land outright, state leaders have leased it to ranchers, auctioned or swapped the occasional parcel and watched the value grow.

Today, almost 9.3 million acres remain in the trust land system--and with some of those parcels sitting on the edge of urban areas, it's now ripe for the plucking.

In recent years, the State Land Department has become one of the biggest players in the land biz, auctioning off one massive parcel after another.

On Tucson's southeast side, for example, the Land Department is planning a future development that will be home to an estimated quarter-million residents on 816,000 square miles, including 418,000 square miles of state trust land.

As the land is sold, the various trusts fill with cash, generating interest that flows to the school system and other beneficiaries. Twenty years ago, the total trust was worth about $200 million; by the 2003, the market value had climbed to $1.12 billion. In the next decade, trust officials estimate the value of the trust will grow as high as $2 billion.

It's a goal they'll reach ahead of schedule with a couple more years like 2004, when the department sold 1,800 acres of state trust land for a record $337 million. In a year-end wrap-up, State Land Department Director Mark Winkleman promised to do even more this year: "We want to continue to bring quality parcels to auction in 2005. I believe there is no higher goal than to generate as much revenue as possible for the education of Arizona's children."

As more state land hits the auction block, environmentalists fret that pristine or historic landmarks, such as Coconino County's Walnut Canyon, Tucson's Tumamoc Hill or the parcels in the Tortolita Fan, will end up getting auctioned off for subdivisions. But preservation efforts have been hamstrung by a provision of the Arizona Constitution that states that the land must be disposed of at "highest and best use"--which has been interpreted as the most money the land can get at auction.

With so much money at stake and so many different stakeholders, state land reform has different meanings to different players. Among the elements that need to be worked out:

· Making the Arizona Preserve Initiative constitutional. This program, started as part of Jane Dee Hull's Growing Smarter program, allowed for the state to match payments from local jurisdictions to buy state land that qualified for open-space preservation. A threat of a lawsuit over the constitutionality of the program has put it on hold.

· Setting aside additional land for conservation. If the land is simply written off as some sort of nature reserve, then the trust--and, by extension, the educators and other beneficiaries--loses out. While the Arizona Education Association says it wants to better plan for both conservation and disposal of land, its leaders are plenty aware of the hundreds of millions of dollars the trust stands to capture.

· Resolving whether ranchers should have to compete for grazing leases. The Arizona Supreme Court has ruled that the State Land Department has to consider bids from environmental groups that want to rest grazing lands alongside bids from ranchers. The ranchers, who long had little worry about competition or oversight, want to strengthen their hold on leases, which has been a deal-breaker for environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity.

· Allowing the state to trade land with the federal government or other agencies. Although the state used to swap with the feds and private speculators, a 1990 Supreme Court ruling brought an end to such swaps; voters have since rejected six measures to amend the Constitution to allow them.

· Developing a new board for the trusts, which are now overseen by a three-member commission made up of the governor, the attorney general and the state treasurer. The education lobby is pushing for a new board of trustees to oversee the management and disposal of state trust land.

Resolving all those conflicts is no easy task--and a successful effort will need to keep all the players on board, because key elements of those reforms will be constitutional amendments that require voter approval.

Gov. Jane Dee Hull tried to pass a reform plan in 2000 with her Growing Smarter proposal, but conservation groups defeated the prop with a campaign saying it was a lousy deal for environmental preservation.

After Hull's plan failed, various representatives from the education, environmental, ranching and homebuilding lobbies began hammering out a new reform plan. That coalition, dubbed the "Fox group" because it was headed up by former Department of Environmental Quality honcho Ed Fox, assembled a comprehensive package of reforms addressing planning, conservation and management, but provisions involving land swaps and grazing rights lost the support of some environmental groups, including the Sierra Club.

By the time that complex proposal reached the Legislature last spring, lawmakers griped they didn't have enough time to study it. An effort to tackle the issue in a special session collapsed.

When stakeholders came back together to simplify the plan, the coalition began to splinter, according to Spencer Kamps of the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona.

"Various constituencies who were part of the group started--rightly so--feeling that it was no longer something they felt comfortable with," says Kamps, who's pessimistic about meaningful legislation this session. "I don't think it's worthy of discussing, because we're down to a basic appropriation."

Gubernatorial spokeswoman Jeanine L'Ecuyer says reform is still possible, although the administration is mum on the details besides saying that Napolitano supports a package similar to the Fox plan.

"There's a lot going on behind the scenes," says L'Ecuyer. "The idea that it has been pronounced dead is premature."

Even if the Legislature somehow resurrects a reform package, Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr says she's skeptical that the proposition will include meaningful conservation without unacceptable trade-offs to ranchers. She's convinced that reform will only come through the hard work of an initiative effort.

Bahr says it's especially tricky, because the more complex the proposal becomes, the more likely voters will reject it, as they did with the Sierra Club's growth-management prop in 2000.

"We're not interested in having a repeat of what happened with the growth-management initiative," Bahr says. "Trying to do a comprehensive package where you try to address a bunch of different issues probably is something that's not going to work on the ballot."

The Arizona Constitution also limits amendments to a single subject, meaning reform elements would likely have to be split into multiple propositions.

Environmentalists will also need to strengthen their political alliance with the education lobby, because if teachers appear on TV ads opposing the plan, it's a sure loser.

"Just coming up with a consensus between the education community and the conservation community is a big task," notes Campbell, who has followed the state land debate while working on Pima County's plan. "As a matter of fact, getting the conservation community itself on the same page is a big task. And then there's the work of the signatures and the campaigns."

Campbell's sure that the reform won't materialize before the county tries to seal the conservation plan with the feds during the next 18 months. She wants to see the county go after privately held land instead.

"Those parcels aren't going to get any cheaper, and the sooner we do it, the better, and we continue to work for state trust land reform," Campbell says.

All of the debate over state land is "just politics" to Neale Allen, a northwest-side resident who has watched bulldozers swallow up pristine desert in Marana, Oro Valley and unincorporated Pima County. While the pygmy owl's endangered status has slowed development in some regions of the Tortolita Fan, county planners suggest that the population of planning area, which includes Marana, Oro Valley and Catalina, will triple or even quadruple in the next 20 years.

Educators might think they'll make a killing off the sale of state land, Allen argues, but high-density development brings more homes, more overcrowded schools and more burdens on local government.

"The pittance that schools get is just nothing compared to the cost it generates for the local people," says Allen, who remains sourly disappointed that the county hasn't done more in the Tortolita Fan.

He complains that the area got "shafted" after voters passed the 1997 open-space bond package, which promised to spend $14 million expanding Tortolita Mountain Park and buying nearby lands. Instead, the county has spent about $300,000.

Huckelberry points to Ironwood Forest National Monument and a recent purchase of 60 acres north of Arthur Pack Park as evidence the northwest side hasn't been entirely abandoned. He says the county still has $6 million to $7 million in unsold bonds that could be used to purchase state land in the area, if reform ever straightens out the legal questions surrounding the Arizona Preserve Initiative.

In the meantime, he argues, time is on the side of state trust land in the Tortolita Fan. The land department isn't currently working on a plan to release the land, and much of it lies within a floodplain.

"The Tortolita Fan is fundamentally un-developable unless somebody wants to invest $200 million in flood control," says Huckelberry.

He predicts that Marana, which has swallowed up some of the best trust land, will continue moving in a "positive direction" regarding conservation. And though he's often sparred with the Land Department in the past, he seems more optimistic about recent land department decisions, such as assigning some planners to Pima County.

"They understand there is state land for development and state land for conservation," Huckelberry says. "It's a very important breakthrough."