Back to the Future

An old fight meets fresh opportunity at Saguaro National Park

Contrary to broad opinion, irony is not dead. It has simply been snoozing for some 23 years.

Consider the Rocking K Ranch, owned by the company of legendary land speculator Don Diamond. Back in 1990, Diamond won a huge and bitter battle against conservationists to rezone his rural, eastside property for massive development.

Today, he hopes to deed 1,374 unbladed acres of Rocking K to Saguaro National Park for permanent preservation, and conservationists are counting on his political clout to seal the deal.

Delicious as that may be, however, sometimes even "Diamond" Don's leverage has its limits in the lofty halls of Congress. If history is any guide, this measure may be his ultimate test.

It was May 9 when U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva unveiled a bill to expand Saguaro National Park by more than 2,500 acres. Co-sponsored by fellow Arizona Reps. Ron Barber and Ann Kirkpatrick, the measure is step one in a two-part process that begins with approval of the expansion and ends with Congress actually coughing up the cash to make it happen.

The additions would protect a vital riparian area and boost much-needed buffers between the park and sprawling Tucson.

Unfortunately, there remain a million ways this plan for expanding Saguaro's east and west units could turn decidedly south.

For example, one need look no further than Petrified Forest National Park in Northern Arizona. Way back in 2004, Congress authorized a 125,000-acre expansion of the park, more than doubling its size. Along with adding petroglyphs and other artifacts, the new boundary would enhance a wilderness area and enclose a globally significant fossil repository.

But endless delays threatened to flush the whole deal, as landowners grew impatient waiting for the federal government to allocate funding for the purchases. Today, nearly a decade later, many of the most important archaeological sites still remain beyond the park's protection.

Why? You could blame skewed priorities in a Congress that has no problem giving the Defense Department more money than it actually wants while routinely sandbagging funds that might expand our national parks to include precious natural resources such as petroglyphs and wildlife habitat.

Yet there is cause for hope; more than 30,000 acres of ranchland adjoining Petrified Forest have since been added to the park. Much of it was purchased with money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is maintained by fees from offshore oil and gas drilling. Other acres were added thanks to a big private donor.

Nonetheless, many of the precious resources surrounding Petrified Forest are still up for grabs. Similar situations are seen across the nation, where many parks endlessly wait to acquire land for preservation. They include development-threatened Gettysburg National Military Park, which could be a poster child for how convoluted these expansions can become. When it was set aside in 1895, marking the site of a bloody Civil War battle, few could have imagined that this federal preserve would someday combat the creep of residential development. But that's exactly what is happening, as park officials struggle to protect the preserve's historical integrity.

A measure reintroduced in April by Sen. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania would expand the park boundaries to include an important battleground and the Gettysburg train station, which served as a field hospital during the war and saw the arrival of President Abraham Lincoln on the eve of the Gettysburg Address.

Protecting this national resource, located in downtown Gettysburg, should be a national priority. But the watchdog website gives Casey's bill a measly 2 percent chance of being enacted.

Where all of this leaves Saguaro National Park remains an open question. While Don Diamond did not return a phone call by press time, his clout may put the park in a better position than it was in 2007 and 2008, when no fewer that four bills to expand the park were shot down in Congress.

On the other hand, at least one of those failed measures likewise included property owned by Diamond himself, proving that even the real estate mogul's power has its limits. It happened when Diamond hoped to sell a parcel called the Bloom property. Conservationists and park officials viewed the 160-acre holding—the second-largest in Saguaro's expansion inventory—as being at great risk of development, with the potential for nearly 50 new houses.

Legislation for that measure, introduced by Sen. John McCain and former Ariz. Sen. Jon Kyl, would have given Diamond nearly 1,300 federal acres in southeast Tucson in exchange for relinquishing the Bloom property and a 2,392-acre ranch southeast of Tucson for incorporation into the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area.

The measure ultimately crashed.

By turn, the latest park expansion would create a permanent wildlife corridor from Saguaro National Park down to the Santa Cruz River and the Sweetwater Preserve. And all the landowners are willing to sell, donate or trade their properties.

Among them is Matt McKenzie, a developer who hopes to sell most—and perhaps donate some—of the 440 acres he owns next to the park on lush Rincon Creek. "I've held on to these properties for 17 or 18 years because I just didn't want to sell them," McKenzie says. "I come from about 10 generations in Tucson. I've watched everything either get developed or loved to death, and this is probably the last chance for that area. I would rather see it in the hands of the government than someone else."

According to Saguaro Superintendent Darla Sidles, McKenzie's property and others nearby would be critical park additions—and the clock is ticking for any deals. "Those landowners probably feel that sooner would be better than later," Sidles says, "because they may not be able to keep the lands, and if the park isn't able to acquire them, they may be forced to sell to somebody else."

Kevin Dahl is Arizona program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association and a key player in pulling the disparate threads of this bill—and the dozen or so landowners—into a cohesive package. While under no illusions of what it takes to make these acquisitions happen, Dahl remains optimistic, noting that having three members of Congress sponsoring legislation to expand Saguaro is a first. And he looks to the influence of Don Diamond with the developer's longtime ally, Sen. McCain.

"I think this year, more than in the last couple of years, there's a better chance because Rocking K is included," Dahl, says "and people really want to see that protected."

Ah, serendipity.