The Skinny

FOREST DIRE: Last week, the Pima County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to request federal protection for 96,000 acres of ironwood forest atop the Silver Bell and nearby mountain ranges northwest of Tucson. U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, in town for an update on the county's Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, hiked to the top of Ragged Top to investigate the area himself and expressed initial support for the idea.

As a recent report from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum pointed out, ironwood trees play a vital role in the ecology of the Sonoran Desert. As a nurse plant, ironwoods provide protection from both extreme heat and extreme cold for a host of plant life. That rich plant environment, in turn, is used by more than 275 species of wildlife, according to Gary Nabhan, director of conservation and science at the Desert Museum, who played a key part in authoring the report.

The trees, which are found almost exclusively in the Sonoran Desert, are already protected in Mexico, but enforcement of those regulations is lax, which means many ironwoods end up as firewood or those darling roadrunner carvings. On both sides of the border, ironwood habitat is being increasingly fragmented.

The supes' call for Ironwood National Monument is a good start. But beneath the Silver Bell Mountains is a dense forest of ironwood trees in the path of development in Marana, Oro Valley and unincorporated Pima County. We hope the push to save the trees on the mountain doesn't mean developers will have carte blanche to bulldoze the remainder of the forest.

INCORPORATION DESOLATION: Once upon a time, the principle behind the ongoing incorporation battles of Pima County made some sense to The Skinny. In a perfect world, citizens ought to have the right to decide the fate of their community themselves -- and not have their decision vetoed by another town six miles away.

But, as has been extensively reported, the 1996 legislation allowing new towns to form in Pima County was declared unconstitutional, leaving Casas Adobes and Tortolita, the two towns that formed during the brief window of opportunity, in limbo. Both communities are fighting in court to remain municipalities.

Supporters of Casas Adobes are also fighting in the Legislature. As the morning daily reported earlier this week, they've cut a deal with the Growth Lobby that might help Casas Adobes remain alive, although it does nothing for Tortolita -- a town formed with the support of more than 70 percent of the actual residents who live in the community.

Under the new legislation moving through the statehouse, communities wishing to incorporate would no longer have to seek permission from surrounding municipalities, provided they were more than six square miles, had a population equal to 1 percent of the county's total residents, and had at least 7 percent of its land zoned for industrial or commercial use.

But someone else would now have veto power over incorporation: developers of master-planned communities, who would have to grant their permission if their project was included in a new town. And forget about impact fees or environmental restrictions like native plant ordinances. If the developer doesn't like those regulations, he wouldn't have to adhere to 'em.

That's how bad this whole incorporation process now stinks. The current citizens once again must bow down to the Growth Lobby and the future residents who will one day come. Apparently, it just ain't a community without Circle K's and strip malls.

It's no wonder the residents of Tortolita have chosen to fight in the courts rather than the halls of the Legislature.

AND WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE, THE LEGISLATURE COMES THROUGH FOR THE RICH GUYS: A billboard industry spokeswoman swore last week that a new, industry-written law to curb Tucson's powers to eliminate illegal billboards will not affect current enforcement cases now in the courts.

Yeah, right.

The law, which limits local control over visual pollution, is just another in a long string of legislative sops to private interests at the expense of the public welfare.

Pima County senators Keith Bee and Victor Soltero provided the margin of victory for this lousy law. Nice work, bozos.

Meanwhile, Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup and Councilman Fred Ronstadt are working on a compromise with the billboard industry -- even though the city's enforcement authority has been repeatedly upheld by courts.

Walkup says the city should make a deal with the folks who own those ugly -- and illegal -- billboards. Given the billboard industry's appetite for litigation, reasons Mayor Bob, the city ought to let 'em keep up one of the illegal eyesores in exchange for every two they take down.

Yeah, and why not extend that same privilege to anyone who contests the city's enforcement efforts regarding any ordinance? Maybe the hookers ought to get together and stoutly oppose the ordinance barring streetwalkers.

Oh, we forgot, those low-paid whores didn't contribute to Mayor Bob's bend-over-for-big-business election campaign.

TOURIST TRAP: Yikes! The two House members in Legislative District 13 continue to yammer in their quest to be top dog. Democrat Andy Nichols and Republican Kathleen Dunbar want to replace studious George Cunningham as the next state senator in the moderate district, which stretches across central Tucson and the Catalina Foothills.

Scurrying for any advantage, the two have grabbed an odd cause: they are battling to be the biggest tourist booster. Nichols, very oddly, championed the effort to jack up the hotel bed tax in Pima County to supposedly increase tourism promotion and tourism. The proposal, which would require approval from Pima County voters, spun out of efforts to create a similar tourism tax in Maricopa County to fund a football palace for the Arizona Cardinals.

A little background: This is a tax that feeds the Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau with virtually no oversight. The county's 2 percent hotel bed tax is divided, with half -- or about $1.4 million -- going to the Convention & Visitors Bureau, and the other half, levied four years ago, to help pay for the costs of Major League spring-training facilities. The bed tax collected in Tucson and Oro Valley also goes to the Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Pinched by budget deficits and its narrow revenue stream (namely, heavy reliance on property tax), the Board of Supervisors, led by Democrat Dan Eckstrom, sought to use the bed tax for other programs -- say, youth services. But the bills run for him at the Legislature -- essentially calling for local control -- went nowhere. And how the hoteliers whined.

But they now trot in not one but two lackeys who are vying for the same state Senate job. Nichols argues it's a great tax to have paid by tourists. What he doesn't realize is that the hike will increase the budget of the spend-happy Convention & Visitors Bureau by more than 100 percent, to around $8.5 million. That's almost as much as the county has available for all of its Parks and Recreation Programs. (Remember that when the pool is closed or when the ballfield lights go off too early.) And what is slated for tourism will now be more than the county's share to the Tucson-Pima Library. Can't find that book? Too bad! Library not open? Tough! At least the Convention & Visitors Bureau guys and gals can enjoy some more trips and expensive meals.

Nichols was cheerfully running the bill along last week when it came to the full floor of the House and Dunbar snatched it. Capitol sources painted an ugly picture. Nichols' version called for a 30-year lifespan on the new tax. Dunbar demanded 10 years. But she got the 101 questions, including a few from Nichols, which she embarrassingly fumbled. Even her good Republican pal Lou-Ann Preble embarrassed her with a few more questions. Finally, Democrat Marion Pickens asked Dunbar to yield. Dunbar refused -- a rare sight -- but then sat down.

Said one observer: "She didn't understand it and she got spanked."

Nichols should not be crowing. Turning $8.5 million over to the Convention & Visitors Bureau is a monumental waste.

MODERN MATURITY: In Oro Valley's recent Town Council primary election, former Caddy Shack Top Cop Werner Wolff, whose troops regularly busted drivers doing 26 mph in a 25 zone, and fellow growth stooge Paul Parisi fooled voters well enough to make the runoff. In one of the dailies, Parisi summed up his rather poor primary performance with typical arrogance, implying that he and others who are "mature" will have the salient things to say as they succeed in the runoff. Gee, Paul, you never seem mature when you're at the luncheon lingerie show at Gus & Andy's.

FAMILY VALUES: One of our favorite kids, Darlene Danehy of Amphitheater High School, was named Outstanding High School Athlete of the Year by the Women's Sports Foundation at their annual banquet last week in the University of Arizona Student Union Ballroom. Darlene plays five Varsity sports, is in the band and on the Student Council, and is valedictorian of her graduating class.

Her father, Tucson Weekly columnist Tom Danehy (one of our least-favorite adults), received a special Father of the Year award from the WSF. His plaque reads: For Outstanding Achievement in Women's Sports: Tom Danehy, The Dad Who Does The Most For Girls and Women In Sports.

See, we've always told you that we're the paper with the best family values. You just always thought we meant the Manson Family.

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