Turf Battle

Lawmakers take another, stripped-back, shot at state trust land reform

Lawmakers are taking another stab at state trust land reform, but this new package is less ambitious than most past proposals.

House Concurrent Resolution 2039, which passed the House last month but faces an uncertain fate in the Senate, would allow about 195,000 acres of trust land in urban areas to be earmarked for conservation and sold at the land's appraised value rather than at auction.

The legislation would pave the way toward preserving several parcels in Pima County, including land in or near Colossal Cave Mountain Park, the Rincon Valley, Tucson Mountain Park, Tumamoc Hill, Arthur Pack Park, the Cienega Creek Natural Preserve, Catalina State Park, Saguaro National Park and the Tortolita Mountains.

Sandy Bahr, the state lobbyist for the Sierra Club, says her group is remaining neutral as the proposal moves forward, but she likes some elements of the plan, particularly the fact that it preserves key parcels near urban areas.

"We think there are some positive aspects to the bill," Bahr says. "The biggest concern I've heard is that there's not enough land in there. The other concern is that the communities won't be able to come up with enough money to buy the land in the time allowed."

But she's skeptical that the package will even make it out of the Legislature, partly because the Arizona Education Association hasn't been supporting it.

Andy Laurenzi, a lobbyist with the Sonoran Institute who has been working on trust land issues for years, says the measure is becoming more complicated as more interested parties weigh in.

"State land reform is a tar baby," Laurenzi says. "There's no way to talk about one issue before other people think their issue needs to be addressed."

Trust land reform is complicated by the fact that so many different groups have an interest in the roughly 9.3 million acres of trust land, which was given to Arizona by the federal government at statehood. The land was set aside for various beneficiaries, primarily education.

Educators want the best return they can get on the land to support schools. Homebuilders want a steady supply of land. Environmentalists want to preserve sensitive lands at a low cost. Ranchers want to hang on to grazing rights.

In recent years, the State Land Department has become more aggressive in auctioning off trust land. In February, for example, the department auctioned 694 acres in Peoria for $61 million.

There's a lot more of that to come. On Tucson's southeast side, the Land Department is planning a development that will be home to an estimated quarter-million residents on 816,000 acres, including 418,000 acres of state trust land.

As more land has hit the market, environmentalists have become increasingly concerned about preserving key parcels, such as Tumamoc Hill on Tucson's westside, where a desert laboratory has been surveying the desert for more than a century, or the ironwood forests in the Tortolita Fan north of Oro Valley.

But preservation efforts have been hamstrung by a provision of the Arizona Constitution that states that the land must be disposed of at "highest and best use"--which has been interpreted as the most money the land can get at auction.

Previous efforts at trust land reform have failed at the ballot box. The most recent was last year, when a coalition of conservationists, teachers and business leaders spent more than $2.5 million on Proposition 106, aka Conserving Arizona's Future, a ballot initiative that would have protected 700,000 acres from development. Homebuilders and ranchers spent more than $2.7 million opposing the effort, which was rejected by 51 percent of the voters.

"Hopefully, we've all learned our lesson about putting comprehensive measures on the ballot," Bahr says. "Especially with the Constitution, I think it needs to be direct and something that the people understand."

Laurenzi agrees that trust land reform will have to come in small steps.

"I think the conclusion that a lot of people have reached is that comprehensive reform is impossible in one effort," he says. "The notion this year was to see if we could do some stuff incrementally."

Although the Nature Conservancy is still talking about a ballot initiative, Laurenzi says there's not much support for the idea among other groups.

"It just leads to another bloodbath, and I don't think anyone's got an appetite for spending $5 million to accomplish nothing," Laurenzi says.

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