Interior Decoration

Bruce Babbitt Comes To Town To Support The Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.

By Jim Nintzel

INTERIOR SECRETARY Bruce Babbitt still has a pretty good understanding of Pima County, even though he said good-bye to Arizona politics more than a decade ago.

"There is something really unique about this town," Babbitt said in a special meeting before the Pima County Board of Supervisors last Thursday, December 3. "It's a feisty, bold, contentious, litigious, sometimes outrageous place, and of course it's precisely that quality of activism and active concern about the community that is so special about Tucson and brings us here today."

Babbitt had come to Pima County to endorse the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, a feisty, bold and contentious proposal designed to preserve unspoiled tracts of desert wilderness while directing development in less-sensitive areas.

Currents Under the proposal, Pima County will develop, in conjunction with state and federal agencies, a multi-species habitat conservation plan, which would create a framework for dealing with endangered-species concerns before they reach a crisis point, as the Amphi School District is now facing in its battle to build a new high school in prime habitat for the endangered pygmy owl.

The stage for Babbitt's visit was set last August, when a coalition of environmental groups working with the county to design a conservation plan agreed to drop its opposition to working under Section 10 of the Endangered Species Act, which deals with the distribution of permits that allow the "taking" of endangered animals. The coalition had opposed developing a multi-species habitat conservation plan because it was critical of the similar plans developed in other Southwestern communities, including San Diego.

A key architect of that controversial San Diego plan was longtime U.S. Fish and Wildlife staffer Gail Kobetich, who has been lured out of retirement to serve as Babbitt's liaison as Pima County puts together its plan. County officials hope Kobetich's experience will accelerate the plan's development.

Babbitt also announced the Interior Department was prepared to split the upfront costs of developing the plan. But county officials are hoping for more: With a price tag that ranges from $250 million to a half-billion dollars over the next two decades, implementation of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan promises to be impossible for Pima County to afford on its own. Already, county staff is making an effort to acquire some of the state dollars available through the recently passed Growing Smarter initiative.

But even those funds, matched by open-space bond dollars, will fall far short of the massive acquisition costs proposed by county staff, who are quietly hoping the feds will provide the high level of funding available to other multi-species habitat conservation plans.

As Babbitt noted at the meeting, Pima County has two congressmen who can help in this effort: Rep. Jim Kolbe sits on the subcommittee that controls appropriations for the Interior Department, while Rep. Ed Pastor has a seat on the Energy and Water Development subcommittee. In addition, Sen. Jon Kyl recently landed a seat on the all-powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.

But every silver lining has a dark cloud--and that dark cloud appeared on the horizon the day after Babbitt's visit, when the Tucson Citizen revealed that Babbitt's visit was motivated by a request from legendary land speculator Don Diamond.

Supervisor Sharon Bronson, who has been a strong proponent of developing the multi-species habitat conservation plan, said she thought Diamond's influence on the process had been overstated.

"It's my understanding what made the Secretary committed to this is that we had both sides cooperating," Bronson says. "We had developers working with environmentalists and small property owners. It was situation where folks wanted to accomplish something rather than head for the courts."

But Supervisor Raul Grijalva, who has been more skeptical of the multi-species habitat conservation plan, said he was troubled by Diamond's involvement.

"We have had this community-generated call to do something," Grijalva says. "Once Diamond gets into the picture, it brings a whole different taint. And the taint is, 'What's in for it me?' And I hope that as we look at prime acquisition, all of sudden those kinds of property don't become the thing. or we don't end accommodating and compromising with Don when this has been driven by the community up until this point." TW

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