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Why next week's bond election is crucial to the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan

When voters decide the fate of a $174 million open-space bond question next week, they won't just be deciding whether to protect more land from development and build more parks.

They'll also be deciding, in large part, the future of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, the sweeping land-use plan county officials have been shaping for more than six years.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry calls the bond election a "linchpin" for the conservation plan, which the county is developing to comply with the federal Endangered Species Act and to preserve rivers, mountain parks, ranches and historical and cultural resources. As part of that effort, scientific surveys have identified the most biologically sensitive land for a multitude of endangered and threatened species.

It was the 1997 listing of the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl as endangered that inspired the county to create the multi-species conservation plan. At the time, former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt, as the head of the Clinton Administration's Interior Department, was encouraging such plans as a way of easing conflict between development and habitat protection. Babbitt's ties to Arizona led to Clinton setting aside the Ironwood National Monument in northeastern Pima County.

The pygmy owl's legal status is now up the air, because a federal appeals court ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service erred when it originally listed it as endangered. But Huckelberry says the court decision plays little role in crafting the conservation plan, because it addresses habitat for more than 50 threatened species.

The variety of species are being pushed to the edge by vanishing habitat. If current growth patterns hold--and Huckelberry suspects they will--then by the time the community reaches 2 million people, an estimated 110,000 more acres of biologically significant lands will be consumed by development. Huckelberry says that the conservation plan will balance that by setting aside roughly 440,000 acres for preservation.

Huckelberry says the conservation plan's success rests on the proverbial "three-legged stool": the bond funds, new land-use regulations that include setting aside portions of ecologically sensitive land when development takes place, and reform of Arizona's State Trust Land system.

The bond funds would give the county the financial muscle to create the biological reserve that's at the heart of the conservation plan. Of the $174 million in the open-space package, about $112 million is set aside for ecologically sensitive habitat in areas near Cienega Creek, the Santa Rita Mountains, Avra Valley, the Tortolitas and Tucson's eastside. These lands will form the base of the reserve created by the conservation plan.

Another $37 million would be spent on "community open space," including areas near Tucson Mountain Park, the Tortolita Mountains and Catalina State Park.

In response to requests from the city of Tucson and the towns of Oro Valley and Sahuarita, the county has set aside $15 million for purchases that would include parcels along 36th Street and near Aqua Caliente Park.

The final $10 million would buy vacant land near Davis-Monthan Air Force Base to prevent further encroachment on the military facility.

"The bond is a key component to getting the conservation plan off the ground," says Huckelberry. "There are ways you could do it otherwise, but those are all incremental."

Huckelberry's view is echoed by Carolyn Campbell, the executive director of the Coalition for the Protection of the Sonoran Desert, an umbrella group of local environmental organizations that support the county's plan.

"Without this bond, it will be virtually impossible to have the kind of Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan that the conservation community envisions," says Campbell.

In addition to the $174 million open-space proposal, voters will also be asked to approve five other bond questions: $81 million for health-care facilities, $183 million for cops and courts, $46 million for flood control, $150 million for sewer facilities and $96 million for parks.

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