Up The Creek

The State Parks Department Is Bullying Responsible Land Owners.

By Jeff Smith

EVERYWHERE I LOOKED last week the world was awash with glad tidings. I flipped on the tube and the NBA had ceased its civil war. Michael Jordan retired and gave an impeachment-weary world something really momentous to obsess over. Steve Kerr's number was retired at Mckale Center.

I thumbed through the pages of the morning rag and Jane Hull was lobbying the Legislature for lots more money to spend on education.

Smith Bruce Babbitt missed the Greyhound out of town and went instead on a hike with some ranchers and tree-huggers, to see how nice the Empire Ranch area looks after years of enlightened cattle grazing. Bill Clinton proposed large increases in investment in open-space preservation.

Fairfield's Canoa Ranch rezoning was shot down in flames. The preservation of the historic San Rafael Ranch moved ever-nearer to certainty, as ranchers and greenies helped the state Parks Board edit its first conservation easement into a form that everyone can live and work with.

We seemed to find ourselves--dare one say it?--at a harmonic convergence of conservation initiatives. And our own little neighborhood was in the vanguard. Pima County Manager Chuckelberry's Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan stood as creative symbol of all that suddenly is going right with Homo sapiens' all-too-often insapient approach to housekeeping.

The buzzword of the moment is wildlife corridors. Two words, actually, but one term, and what it means is that we are coming to recognize that just because land is vacant, and that somebody owns it and wants to make a shitload of money turning it into townhouses and golf courses and shopping malls and bridal paths, and that there may even be a market for such sprawl, greater good and better uses may argue against letting land developers have their way with us.

We may be fouling our own nests.

And, mirabile dictu, even those of us who prefer a high-rise condo and a climate-controlled indoor mall as a living/working/frolicking environment may be better-off if these irreplaceable green swatches of Mother Earth are left unpaved.

Having noted all of the foregoing, allow me a brief discouraging word:

Down Lake Patagonia way there are signs that in its zeal to hold and preserve as much real estate as possible, the state Parks Department is stepping on the toes of essentially innocent, demonstrably well-intentioned land-owners, who just happen to have beat them to the punch on some lovely riparian habitat.

What happened was developer John Ratliff got hold of about 10,000 acres of land south of Lake Patagonia. He started selling 40-acre chunks in the early '90s and folks around here jumped on the deal. Around 4,500 acres on the south side of Sonoita Creek sold in a New York minute; then suddenly the state Parks Board woke up and swooped up the 5,000 acres still for sale on the north side of the creek. Since then the Parks Board has been working on a plan to preserve and protect a riparian area along the creek.

This is a noble and wonderful idea, except for the apparent belief amongst the state parks types that the private landowners on the south side of the creek represent a threat to this grand design, and need to be either bought out, run out or fenced out.

The 144-odd owners on the south side of the creek, 15 of whom having creek-frontage parcels, all are signators to an easement and agreement which maintains the creek as a greenbelt. All owners are members of an association and have access to the creek for hiking, riding horsies, dangling their footsies in the water--fuzzy, flora-friendly pursuits.

Both the developer and the owners' association have done an exemplary job of establishing responsible access to this natural area, in a manner that should preserve the resource in healthy shape.

The state Parks Board has no reason to fear these private owners are a threat to this riparian area, and need not be so heavy-handed in their attempts to control the creek.

Heavy-handed, as for instance, in suggesting they might have to run a fence down the middle of the creek to keep folks out of the state's side of the property line. This is patent silliness. The creek wanders with every flood, so any fence--what little of it survived the flood, or hadn't created a huge hair-ball of a dam, clogging the creek and wreaking havoc--would wind up out of the creek bed as often as it was in it. Anyway, this amounts to a dog-in-the-manger kind of a threat, and is probably hollow.

Besides which it might not be legal: the developer designated the original easement to include both sides of the property line along the general creek alignment--the land on the south side owned privately, and the north side subsequently purchased by the Parks Board--so it's unlikely the state can futz with the creek.

Which is probably why the Parks folks also are looking for "willing sellers" on the south side of the creek, and, failing that, holding out the possibility of condemnation proceedings.

Hey: This trip isn't really necessary. We have here a chance to demonstrate that, as Rodney King pleaded, we can all just get along.

Public and private interests can be melded into a harmonic whole. (And, incidentally, dudes from the Circle Z Ranch can plod along their traditional trails without doing irreparable harm to either the real estate or the state Parks Department's long-term goals.)

One key truth needs to be borne in mind: The state Parks Department works for the people of the state in the area of parks. Well, duh. But what seems to have been lost, in the zeal to preserve and protect pristinity and primitivity, is that parks are public places and that public agencies have a responsibility to bring the public into these parks and then wave good-bye as they leave, knowing, essentially, that the people haven't been mauled by predators and that the parkland hasn't been shat upon and littered with beer cans.

The temptation to regard humans as something outside the natural order, and to turn our parks into opposable-thumb-free zones, should be eschewed. TW

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