INTERIOR DECORATION: In his final days in office, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt gave a final gift to Arizona conservationists by recommending that President Bill Clinton create another 486,000-acre monument near Gila Bend in the Sand Tank Mountains and on the Sentinel Plain.

After eight years, Babbitt leaves Washington with a mixed legacy. It took a mighty long time for the Clinton Administration to get around to preserving wilderness, perhaps owing in part to the fact that Babbitt himself was hobbled in the midst of his term by an Independent Counsel investigation regarding Indian gaming rights.

Under Babbitt's watch, we've seen an effort to reintroduce the wolf to the wild, as well as other efforts to shore up the Endangered Species Act. Here in Pima County, local officials have worked with federal agencies on the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan with the hopes of getting federal and state support in dealing with the environmental and legal complexity that results when an urban area bumps up against vanishing habitat for an endangered species.

In his final year, Babbitt got a lot more aggressive about preserving the nation's wild places. He persuaded Clinton to use the Antiquities Act to set aside the 129,000 acres along the Pima/Pinal county line as the Ironwood National Monument. It joined three other new Arizona monuments: the million-acre Grand Canyon-Parashant along Arizona's northern border; the Agua Fria National Monument, which covers more than 72,000 acres between Phoenix and Flagstaff; and the 293,000-acre Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. Those moves had Republicans at the state and local level screaming, but if polls are accurate, three out of every four Arizonans were happy to see the land preserved. We're just sorry Babbitt didn't recommend Clinton take steps to further protect the Cabeza Prieta, a cause pushed by local enviros such as Bill Broyles and Chuck Bowden.

These last-minute giveaways, and others like 'em across the Western United States, left extremists among the property-rights crowd unhappy with Babbitt, whom they regarded as a land-grabbing varmint out to literally unleash wolves upon land made safe for cattle and sheep. It all came too late for some hard-core environmentalists, who dismissed Babbitt as a fraud who didn't fight hard enough for wilderness.

However disappointed the greens may be in Babbitt, he's surely better than his proposed successor, Gale Norton, a protégé of Reagan Administration Interior Secretary James Watt, a land rapist of the first degree.

In her recent years as attorney general for Colorado, Norton was known for cuddling up to polluters and battling federal officials over environmental regulations. Norton is very much of the extraction-over-conservation school when it comes to public lands. She doesn't strike us as the type to lose much sleep over the potential extinction of the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, which adds up as bad news for Pima County.

FACILITATED: The University of Arizona is acting like a neighborhood bully again, this time on the corner of Sixth Street and Cherry Avenue. Having demolished the old frat house that sat behind the Circle K on the corner, the UA now wants to move part of its facility management yard to the site.

The basic scenario is this: The university would like to break ground on a new dormitory where the facilities management yard is now located on campus, which means it needs a new home for the equipment. Most of the facility is slated to head down Sixth Street to the old TEP building located west of Stone Avenue. But the UA wants to move part of its landscaping operation to a makeshift materials yard at Sixth and Cherry. Current plans call for the UA to circle the yard with a brick wall, with chain-link fence topped with barbed wire facing Cherry Avenue. Won't that brighten the neighborhood!

The neighborhood association is ready to fight the encroachment. They don't want to deal with pre-dawn noise as crews arrive at work. They don't want the increased dust as dirt and who-knows-what-else is dumped behind the walls. They don't want increased traffic along Seventh Street and Highland Avenue, where UA trucks would likely attempt to cross Sixth Street. Not to mention the effect all that dust and fertilizer will have on Jersey Joe's fine Italian restaurant, which will border the new materials yard.

Neighbors have suggested the university consider building a pocket park with volleyball courts, since the property is close to the UA's fitness center. But UA officials have said the price would be too steep, although they've sidestepped the question of how much the facilities yard would cost.

CHRISTOPHER CITY HEAT: Speaking of the University of Arizona, tonight's public hearing on the UA's request to rezone the former Christopher City on Fort Lowell Road at Columbus Boulevard promises to be an exciting one.

The university is asking for permission to allow up to 700 residential units and a large commercial corner on the site. More than 100 neighbors of the property, either through official protest forms or by signing a petition, are opposing the request. So City Zoning Examiner Peter Gavin can look forward to some lively discussion this evening.

DEMOCRATIC DISARRAY: These aren't what you'd call the best of days for Arizona Democrats. Republicans hold both U.S. Senate seats and five out of six congressional districts. The GOP has control of all but one statewide office and the state House of Representatives.

The one place the Democrats have gained ground is the state Senate, where they managed to achieve a 15-15 tie only because former Speaker of the House Jeff Groscost soaked himself in an alt-fuel mess and set himself on fire. None of the races Democrats targeted to gain ground, such as districts 9 and 12 in Pima County, panned out for them.

The Democrats have become so desperate they've taken to advertising for candidates, which doesn't say much for the recruitment process.

The party's old guard--folks like Mo Udall and Dennis DeConcini--have passed away or moved on long ago. The current chief of the Arizona Democratic Party, Mark Fleisher, is a hapless dope who has fumbled any efforts at strengthening the party.

Fleisher is facing a strong challenge from Scottsdale developer Jim Pederson, who put up more than $650,000 of his own money to pass Prop 106, which stripped redistricting power from state lawmakers and gave it to an independent committee that's already coming together. Evidently hoping that the new districts will give Democrats a fighting chance, Pederson now wants to make sure there's a party there to back candidates come 2002.

RIO GRANDE: We're cautiously optimistic, as they say, about the latest plans for Rio Nuevo unveiled last week by the city's consultant, Hunter Interests. The new draft shows real foresight in shifting museums, the Sonoran Sea aquarium, the science center, the IMAX theatre and the like away from the Rio Nuevo property along Congress Street west of the Santa Cruz River. The move concentrates the activity east of I-10 near the Tucson Convention Center. (It remains a federal crime that the hideous U.S. District Courthouse was sunk in the middle of all of this on the corner of Congress and Granada.)

The shift is a smart move, bringing more activity into downtown, rather than having it splintered by the barrier created by the interstate and riverbed. It creates opportunity for the storefronts along Congress, all too many of which are vacant these days. Let's hope both the Rialto and Fox theatersa receive a share of the dollars for redevelopment.

The shift also decreases pressure on the barrios surrounding Rio Nuevo itself, which will be the site of a cultural park--a fitting way to honor the city's birthplace--and a performing arts amphitheater, along with a visitors center and retail and restaurant space at the northern edge along Congress Street.

The key to making it work, however, remains private investment. The Rio Nuevo bonds can build new roads and other infrastructure, as well as provide some seed money for the proposed cultural attractions, but they can't be expected to sustain the projects.

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