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Are lawmakers trying to sabotage a state land initiative?

The Arizona Legislature is moving closer to putting a proposition on the November ballot to compete with a citizen initiative to reform the state trust land system.

The House of Representatives voted 32-23 last week to approve House Concurrent Resolution 2045, which would ask voters to set aside an initial 42,000 acres of state trust land for conservation.

But the proposal is a lousy deal compared to Conserving Arizona's Future, an ongoing initiative campaign that also seeks to reform the state land system, says Steve Roman, a political consultant who is among the campaign's leaders.

"From what I've seen of that bill, it is not anywhere close to what we're suggesting is important and what we're putting on the ballot," Roman says.

State trust land reform has been a contentious environmental issue for years in Arizona. About 11 million acres were set aside at statehood to be held in trust for a variety of beneficiaries, primarily schoolchildren. State trust land was originally laid out across the state in a checkerboard pattern, with little consideration to any ecological value the parcels might have.

Because the Arizona Constitution states that the land must be sold off at its highest and best use, the land has generally been auctioned off for development. In recent years, as more state land has hit the auction block, conservationists have sought some way to protect sensitive lands, particularly in urban areas.

In Pima County, those areas include parcels near Tumamoc Hill, where a UA laboratory has been studying the desert for more than a century; the "Tortolita Fan" on the northwest side, where the county has attempted to preserve habitat as part of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan; and Fantasy Island, the popular mountain-biking trail near Houghton and Irvington roads that Land Department officials want to put on the auction block in the near future.

The issue has been particularly tricky to resolve because several competing interest groups--including educators who benefit from the sale of the land, developers who want to build on the land, conservation groups that want to protect the land and ranchers who want to hang on to their rights to graze cattle at low cost on the land--all have an interest in the outcome. After efforts to persuade lawmakers to put a reform package on the ballot fizzled in recent years, a group of business leaders, educators and environmental groups have moved forward with the initiative campaign.

Roman says Conserving Arizona's Future would protect far more property than the legislative alternative. The initiative would save 690,000 acres of the more than 9 million remaining acres of state trust land. By contrast, HCR 2045 would conserve only 42,000 acres, with up to 400,000 acres protected in the future if the Legislature agrees to conserve the land.

Roman is skeptical that lawmakers would act to preserve that much land if their version were to pass in November.

"History has shown that the Legislature has never done that," Roman says. "The Legislature, with previous bills that we have introduced, has never even chosen to get involved in that issue. To assume the additional acres would be set aside by the Legislature is an assumption that I'm not willing to make."

Rep. John Nelson, a Republican from Glendale who is the primary sponsor of HCR 2045, didn't return a phone call from the Weekly.

Southern Arizona lawmakers supporting the legislation included Republicans Jennifer Burns, Jonathan Paton, Marian McClure and Democrat Manny Alvarez. Opposed were Democrats Tom Prezelski, Linda Lopez, Phil Lopes, Olivia Cajero Bedford, Ted Downing, Dave Bradley and Republican Pete Hershberger. Rep. Steve Huffman, a Republican now running for Congressional District 8, didn't vote on the measure.

The legislation has been transmitted to the state Senate. If senators approve the legislation, it would appear alongside the initiative, which appears headed for the November ballot.

Roman says his group has gathered more than the 183,917 signatures necessary for a successful initiative drive and will have a thick cushion by the July 6 deadline to submit petitions to the Arizona Secretary of State's Office.

"We are in wonderful shape and delighted with the response that people are giving in their support for this effort," Roman said. "It is going to be on the ballot--which is probably why you're seeing some of this activity taking place in the Legislature right now."

Roman declined to discuss how much money the group planned to spend on the effort, but records on the Secretary of State's Web page indicate they have already raised more than $450,000 in contributions larger than $10,000.

A political committee opposed to the initiative, Protect Teacher Pay, has raised nearly $40,000, with $25,000 coming from the Arizona Cattle Growers Association.

Sandy Bahr, legislative lobbyist for the Sierra Club, says her organization is remaining neutral on Conserving Arizona's Future, because the initiative doesn't set aside enough land for conservation.

But the Sierra Club is definitely opposed to the legislative referendum.

"It's basically being referred to create confusion and undercut a citizen initiative," says Bahr. "We've had the Legislature do that to our measures, and (we) didn't think it was right then and don't think it's right now."

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