TUCSON, Ariz. - Five years ago, federal officials saw a perfect spot in the Tucson Mountains foothills for a park expansion. Covered by lush stands of palo verdes, saguaros and ocotillos, the site included several washes that provided shelter for wildlife. It also contained one of the few perennial water sources in the mountains, attracting bobcats, mule deer and javelinas to the area.
The Park Service proposed
the expansion, and a coalition of environmentalists, guest ranch
operators, mountain bikers and hikers lobbied Congress hard. In
1994, then-Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D, and Rep. Jim Kolbe, R, both of
Arizona, pushed through a law expanding Saguaro National Park West
by nearly 3,500 acres. The new boundaries were supposed to take in
about 1,800 acres of private land, purchased by Congress with money
from the federal Land and Water Conservation Trust
But so far, the only private land gained by
the park is the 632-acre chunk it got last April in a trade with
Tucson developer Don Diamond (HCN, 5/25/98).
result, backhoes are now grinding away on a ridgetop within the
park's new boundaries. The ridgetop belongs to Richard Spross, a
private landowner who's decided not to wait for the federal buyout
money. And he's not alone. Eight houses have now been built within
the park expansion area, and driveways and water lines have gone in
for three more homes.
"What's unsettling is that
the federal government went through a feasibility study and
legislation to expand the boundary when there was no money to back
it up," " says Quinn Simpson, an environmentalist whose home
adjoins the new boundary of the park. "It was a meaningless
gesture. What's the point?" "
extensive development could occur soon. The Park Service says that
four large parcels within the park boundary, ranging from 66 to 240
acres, could wind up as low-density housing subdivisions in the
next few years. And Park Superintendent Frank Walker predicts that
an additional 16 or so houses will be built in the next
"It's happened all
Saguaro is not the only national park where
a lack of federal funds has allowed private homes to rise within
"Name a park - it's happened all
over," " says Barbara Sulhoff, land resources chief for the Park
Service's regional office in Santa Fe, N.M. Homes have been built
within park boundaries at Zion, Yosemite, Grand Teton and Rocky
Mountain national parks, she says.
And now that
the houses are built in the Tucson Mountains, it's too late for the
Park Service to buy the land, Walker says.
certainly wouldn't try to go back and buy a bunch of houses. That
would not make sense," " he says. "Once the character of that piece
of land gets changed, the natural open space is just not there
The sight of homes lying within the
park's boundaries has renewed a long, bitter debate between
environmentalists and the federal
Theoretically, the money exists to
buy Saguaro's land and plenty more. Proposed by John F. Kennedy and
enacted in 1965, the federal Land and Water Conservation Trust Fund
was supposed to draw from $900 million a year raised from offshore
oil leasing fees and other sources. But Congress has given the fund
one-fifth to one-third of that amount every year since the dawn of
the Reagan administration in 1981. The balance, $11 billion since
1970, has been used to offset the federal budget
Last year, as part of a budget
agreement, President Clinton and Congress agreed to give the land
acquisition fund $700 million, its first major jolt of federal
money in many years.
But Republican congressmen,
including Kolbe, say that Congress has been caught in a seemingly
endless budget crunch and a protracted debate over how to spend its
land acquisition money.
"There are a lot of other
people who have land acquisition projects who are waiting in line,"
One reason that Congress hasn't had
money for Saguaro West, he says, is that it has been buying up
private land for Saguaro National Park East, on the other side of
Tucson. Since 1992, Congress has spent $23 million to buy about
4,000 acres for an expansion it approved in
"You can't increase one area without
finding an offset somewhere," " says Kolbe's press secretary, Ron
Foreman. "There are a lot of tough choices being made."
Congress is likely to appropriate roughly $2.5
million to purchase land for Saguaro West by the end of 1998. But
the Park Service pegs the purchase price for the 1,200 acres at $12
million to $15 million, an inflation-driven increase of about $5
million since the 1994 expansion law passed.
is a little bit of an illusion to taxpayers," says Saguaro Park
official Bob Lineback. "They work hard to get land inside a
national park, and the land is not purchased."
Environmentalists agree. "We set up this fund
with the idea that because we are going to deplete a nonrenewable
resource - oil - we will reinvest in America's heritage," " says
David Simon, Southwestern representative of the National Parks and
Conservation Association. "If you want a contract with America,
baby, that is a contract that is being violated."
Tony Davis covers growth
and development issues for the Arizona Daily Star in
You can contact
* Saguaro National Park West,
* Rep. Jim Kolbe,