SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - When Greg Woodall was in high school in the early 1970s, he and his buddies spent their free time making mischief on the outskirts of town. Scottsdale was mostly a company town in those days, and the kids of the Motorola plant workers escaped to the desert to hike and climb, ride motorcycles, hunt rabbits with .22s, and throw huge outdoor parties they called boondockers.

"Whatever we were doing, the desert was always a backdrop," he says.

Greg was addicted to the craggy McDowell Mountains, which define Scottsdale's eastern edge. His sister, Carla, who sometimes joined his adventures, remembers dropping him off at one end of the mountains on Friday and picking him up at the other on Sunday afternoon.

Greg's desert playground has since been discovered by a new, wealthier wave of immigrants. Scottsdale's highways are lined with real estate signs, and uprooted saguaros and palo verde trees roll forlornly by on landscapers' flatbed trucks. Greg's rabbit-hunting grounds are covered by a Target store.

"What used to be 'out there' is now just in here," he says.

Yet the typical Sunbelt-town epitaph doesn't apply. In the early 1990s, Greg and Carla got tired of watching those uprooted saguaros pass by. Greg unrolled some maps and outlined the areas most vulnerable to development, places he thought should be preserved for good. Carla, the more gregarious of the pair, took the maps and plunged into politics.

Greg is now a park ranger at the Grand Canyon. Though he visits often and gives mapping advice from afar, it's Carla who has stayed in Scottsdale and made the creation of a preserve a personal mission.

Carla, who uses only her first name, became a dedicated volunteer for the McDowell Sonoran Land Trust and rallied support for a citywide preservation tax. The city, in cooperation with the land trust, has used the money to purchase and preserve 14,400 acres of private land around Scottsdale. Though Carla's group was controversial at first - a local newspaper even dubbed her the "Marxist of the McDowells" - the McDowell Sonoran Preserve is now an immensely popular getaway.

In spite of the public support, Greg's planned preserve isn't yet complete. Carla and her brother hope to more than double its size, and those acres may be the toughest to protect.

The remaining 16,600 acres that Greg targeted are managed by the Arizona State Land Department, which oversees 9.3 million acres around the state. As with almost all state land departments, its generations-old mission leaves little room for preservation. "The institution was set up when there was an excess of land and a shortage of people," says Brad Ack of the Grand Canyon Trust in Flagstaff. "Now we have the reverse situation."

Suburban state land has gradually become - depending on how you look at it - either prime real estate or prized backyard open space. No matter which side you're on, it's become well worth a fight. In Arizona, that fight is about to get serious.

Carla, her brother, and their allies around the state want to change the mission of their state land department. In order to do that, they have to pass a state ballot initiative, alter the Arizona Constitution, and get the blessing of the U.S. Congress. It's a big battle, and it's inextricably linked with the region's struggle over sprawl. But good timing and strong allies have given this pair a chance. And in Arizona, ground zero for growth, a chance is as good as it gets.

State lands are the wallflowers of Western land management. The small, often isolated parcels have never attracted as much attention as the grand national parks of the Colorado Plateau or the gigantic Forest Service wildernesses. But Western state lands - those blue squares on most land-use maps - add up to more than 30 million acres.

Unlike national parks and forests, though, state lands aren't quite public. "There's this illusion of open space," says Carla. "People see the sign that says it's owned by the state, and they think it's protected. It's not."

While the federal agencies tussle with complicated and conflicting missions, most state land departments have a single purpose: making money. When the Western states joined the Union, the federal government granted land to each, usually handing over two square-mile sections in each 36-section township. The profits from leasing or selling the land at auction are distributed to state institutions - usually public schools - or held in permanent school funds. The land departments are trustees of the funds, so they must manage the assets (the land) for the long-term welfare of the beneficiaries (the kids).

Sally Fairfax, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley and one of the very few regional experts on state trust lands, says this structure should be good for the land and good for the kids. "I really respect the trust mandate," she says. "It requires conservative management."

Yet the reality of state trust land management is often very different from the theory. In most states, the agency head is appointed by the governor or by a board of elected officials, so it's easy for political loyalties to cloud the vision of the state land department. Frequent staff turnover and endemic budget shortfalls often make planning a luxury. The job is further complicated by a long series of court decisions, most of which emphasize immediate returns over long-term benefits.

So land managers sometimes abandon future rewards in favor of short-term payoffs. Nevada, which sold most of its state lands soon after gaining statehood, was the original spendthrift; with a few happy exceptions, other state land departments are following a similar pattern in slow motion. Environmentalists have criticized state land departments for overgrazing and clear-cutting, undervaluing land exchanges, and agreeing to lowball bids for mineral leases and land sales (HCN, 7/25/94: 'Unranchers' reach for West's state lands).

Growth has created new problems. Past land exchanges with federal agencies consolidated some state land into huge parcels near cities, and in many places, state land now makes up most of the developable acreage. About 300,000 acres of Arizona state land have been surrounded by subdivisions and strip malls. Over the past 10 years, the department has sold or leased about 42,700 acres of that land for residential, commercial and municipal development. Another 97,350 acres have been sold or leased to developers or local governments for use as open space.

In Arizona's hot real estate market, the pressure to make deals with developers is intense, and the state land department sometimes doesn't put up much of a fight. A 1997 state auditor's report revealed that three-quarters of recent land sales had only one bidder and went for the minimum bid. The department hired a respected Canadian planner, Gordon Rodgers, to help clean up the mess, but land commissioner Michael Anable fired Rodgers just a few months later. After his ouster, Rodgers told the Tucson Weekly that state lands were "being sold cheap to today's developers."

Anable says he has neither the staff nor the funding to do long-term planning. "We're barely doing the job we need to be doing in any number of areas," he says flatly.

For many Arizona urbanites, that excuse isn't good enough. Many of them have just been introduced to their state land, and they'd rather not see it developed. They're starting to think that Carla has a pretty good idea.

Carla doesn't want to leave the fate of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve up to free-market forces. She wants to see a basic change in the state land department's mission, one that would allow it to consider conservation as well as economic gain. She points out that school trust lands earn less than 5 percent of the annual school budget, even by the most generous estimates; the intangible rewards from open space, she says, would be far greater.

"Money isn't the only thing that should matter," she says. "We have to think about other things, like the quality of life for our communities and our schoolchildren."

Sounds simple. As a boatload of would-be reformers can tell you, it's anything but.

State Rep. Carolyn Allen has a knee-high stuffed elephant parked outside her Statehouse office, but her fellow Republicans aren't always reassured. The outgoing, joke-cracking House majority leader is well-known for her independent streak.

Allen has represented Scottsdale and the other northeastern Phoenix suburbs since 1995. Like many of her fellow Scottsdale residents, she's become a dedicated supporter of state land conservation; her Web site lists her occupation as "Activist." "My constituents are very, very concerned about protecting the Sonoran Desert," she says. "I also became concerned that we were going to lose that land, and that maybe we were going to lose it forever. That was unacceptable to me."

In 1996, she proposed that communities be allowed to lease or buy state lands - at market value - to protect them from development. The Arizona Preserve Initiative was an eminently moderate bill, and it even had the enthusiastic support of then-Gov. Fife Symington, a conservative Republican.

But Allen jokes that she "still has bloodstains" from her fight to get the bill through the Legislature. Rural lawmakers have a lot of influence in the Statehouse, and many were worried about restrictions on state-land grazing and farming. "They were deadly opposed to it," says Allen. "It was a very, very hard-fought battle."

The bill eventually passed both houses by a comfortable margin, but rural politicians claimed a victory, too: The final version of the bill said that conservation leases could only be applied to urban lands.

In spite of the compromise, Allen was elated. "Whatever legacy I have when I leave here, I believe the API will be my proudest," she says. With the help of the initiative, she says, "we will hopefully not have red tile roofs on every inch of that gorgeous desert."

During Gov. Symington's campaign for the bill, he used a piece of state land in Scottsdale to make his case. He ordered the land department to put the brakes on development of the Granite Mountains, a 15,000-acre piece of state land on the north end of town. Developers had spent years making plans for a posh golf course subdivision called Sonoran Villages, and the state was almost ready to put the land up for auction.

The governor had other ideas. The Granite Mountains, he told his audience at a news conference, was the type of land the Arizona Preserve Initiative was designed to protect.

And, thanks to the initiative, protected it is. Well, almost. The Sonoran Villages proposal is long gone, but the Granite Mountains aren't yet part of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. In order for a piece of state land to be protected under the Arizona Preserve Initiative, the land department first has to reclassify it as "suitable for conservation."

Reclassification puts development on hold, giving a local government or land trust time to acquire matching funds for the state and purchase or lease the land. But since the property keeps its market-value price tag, the city or land trust can't close the deal unless it's very, very rich. So far, only three properties - totaling 732 acres - have been preserved for good under the API.

Scottsdale figures it's still worth a try. The city has gone all-out to get the Granite Mountains and the rest of its state lands reclassified under the API. At a public hearing on Feb. 15, so many people showed up that the fire marshal had to bar the doors. "It was just person after person saying, 'We love this land, let's protect it,' " says a city staffer who videotaped the meeting. "It was actually pretty boring after a while."

On May 29, a state advisory board voted 4-0 to reclassify the land. The decision is now up to commissioner Anable, who may or may not agree with the advisory board. Anable says he'll reclassify a "significant part" of the 16,600 acres in Scottsdale's petition, but hints he's not eager to deliver the entire chunk.

"The API requires us to set aside only the lands with unique natural resource features. It wasn't intended to be used for buying humdrum open space," he says.

Since even humdrum open space is in short supply in Phoenix and Tucson, Scottsdale activists and many others are frustrated by the program's strict requirements. "We knew the API wasn't going to be the last step," says Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club. "Most of us saw it as a way to buy time."

The Arizona Preserve Initiative turned out to be an early skirmish in Arizona's battle over growth. Arizona is the second fastest-growing state in the nation, outpaced only by Nevada, and its population grew by 40 percent between 1990 and 2000. Most of the growth is concentrated in the suburbs; metropolitan Phoenix, for example, expands outward by a half-mile each year. And the growth hasn't gone unnoticed by locals. Last year, a poll found that nearly half of Phoenix residents would flee the area if they could.

In some quarters, these poll numbers have inspired something close to panic. Scottsdale, whose population now numbers well over 200,000, isn't the only suburb working to preserve open space, and the communities have recruited support from the many environmental groups now paying closer attention to the issue. The conservative state government has also tried to respond to the rising concern, tackling both growth management and state-land protection. But so far, the results have been a hopelessly mixed bag.

In 1998, the Sierra Club tried to get a statewide growth-management initiative on the ballot. The group didn't get enough signatures to put its proposal to a vote, but it did inspire a counterproposal from the state Legislature. A Legislature-sponsored ballot measure, or referendum, successfully established a more conservative program called Growing Smarter. Republican Gov. Jane Hull organized a group of 15 environmentalists, developers, ranchers and legislators as the Growing Smarter Commission.

Over the next two years, the commission came up with some modest recommendations for protection of open space. Some measures addressed local planning, and others tackled state-land management. When the commission passed its recommendations along to the state Legislature, the Legislature proceeded to fold, spindle and mutilate them.

"It was a terrible disappointment," says Luther Propst of the Tucson-based Sonoran Institute, who served on the commission. "The results did not even resemble what the commission presented."

The Legislature asked voters to approve a state-land referendum called Proposition 100. Though the Growing Smarter Commission had asked to establish a long-term process for protecting state lands, Proposition 100 aimed to conserve 279,000 acres of the 9.3 million acres of Arizona state land, with about a quarter of that in washes and on steep slopes. And that was almost certainly a final figure. Not an acre more was likely to be protected, ever.

Even moderate environmental groups were outraged. The Nature Conservancy went public with its opposition, as did the Sonoran Institute. For once, Arizona's fractious environmental community united.

Rep. Allen joined the environmentalists, openly defying both her party and her governor. "I'm accused of being a zealot," she says. "I spoke very strongly on this." The opposition prevailed, and Proposition 100 failed in a close vote.

Proposition 100 was one of two controversial land-use initiatives on the ballot last fall. The Sierra Club collected enough signatures to float its Citizens' Growth Management Initiative, making up for its failed attempt in 1998. Proposition 202, the group's strict growth-control measure, earned the hatred of developers and even alienated many middle-of-the-road environmentalists (HCN, 10/23/00: Arizona's 202 takes aim at sprawl). Money flowed towards 202's opposition forces, and popular campaign signs even provided a mnemonic: Roses are red/ Violets are blue/ Yes on 100/ No on 202.

After an exhausting campaign burned up millions of dollars, Proposition 202 went down by nearly 2 to 1. With both initiatives in the trash can, Arizona was left with nearly nothing, and sprawl continued unabated. To some, any kind of protection was starting to look good.

Laurie Faeth of The Nature Conservancy says, "We felt like the voters were saying 'Look, guys, try to work together next time. This was ridiculous.' "

After the messy election, a lot of people called Ed Fox. Fox, who works out of a glassy office with a view of downtown Phoenix, is a vice president of Pinnacle West Capital Corp., the parent company of Arizona's largest power provider.

Fox was once head of the state Department of Environmental Quality, and he has friends who are environmentalists, friends who are businesspeople, and friends who are both. All of the friends who called him after the election wanted to talk about state lands. "I wasn't gonna have 50 individual meetings," he says, with the resigned air of someone who's sat through a lot of meetings. "So I said, 'Why don't we get a group together?' "

The diverse group traveled from all over the state to a meeting in Phoenix in early December. At the end of the day, the only thing the people at the table could agree on was that they needed more meetings.

Fox, who has a reputation for pragmatism, became the facilitator. "The only ground rule was that we couldn't rehash the election," he says. "We were trying to find some sort of basic common interest."

The environmentalists, developers, ranchers, educators and businesspeople soon did. "To a person," says Fox, "everybody eventually agreed that conservation was something that needed to be considered in state trust lands."

The coalition has been so hush-hush that it hasn't even given itself a name. But in late May, it went public with its ideas for yet another ballot initiative. First, the group would ask voters to recognize conservation as an "appropriate goal" for management of some state lands. It also proposed to deep-six the development rights for a million acres of state lands, including about 250,000 acres of prime real estate. That would mean communities could purchase the protected lands at conservation value instead of the much pricier development value. The coalition is still haggling over the maps, but its final proposal will get specific about which properties would be protected.

Unlike Proposition 100, though, the coalition's plan doesn't stop there. It intends to set up a process to protect even more state lands in the future. The Legislature would be responsible for developing the details.

"Hell could freeze over first," Carla sighs, certain the Legislature won't act quickly. But the drafts of their maps have passed what Ed Fox calls "the straight-face test" with most of the players, and all members agree that the coalition has reached a rough consensus.

In a state that sometimes seems permanently divided over growth, this is big news. "I feel more hopeful about state lands than I have in a long time," says Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club.

There's still plenty of work ahead. The proposal would require not only a voter-approved change to the state Constitution, but also a congressionally approved change to the Enabling Act, the document that made Arizona a state back in 1912. Though the coalition could try to get a sympathetic lawmaker like Carolyn Allen to rally support for a referendum in the Legislature, almost nobody thinks that would be worth the effort.

"Most of the players have not changed, and I believe it will be an exercise in futility," says Allen, who has kept close tabs on the coalition's progress.

Allen has advised the coalition to "take it to the street" and gather the signatures required for a citizens' ballot initiative in 2002. Colorado voters passed a moderate reform initiative in 1996 (see story next page), and she thinks Arizona will get behind the coalition's effort. "On the street, the public is going to be with us," she says. "We need to remember that."

These embattled reformers sound suspiciously optimistic. This is Arizona, after all, where developers can grow up to be governors. How will this initiative possibly face down the sprawl business?

The reformers' cautious confidence is rooted in their long string of defeats and half-victories. They've watched their work on the Arizona Preserve Initiative get swallowed by bureaucracy. They've seen the Growing Smarter Commission's plans for state land all but destroyed by the Legislature. The environmentalists who supported Proposition 202 stood by, as a deeply offended opposition turned their proposal into pulp.

They got really depressed, but they learned something: When you're fighting sprawl in Arizona, it's best to get your enemies on your side. "We've got to have a broad base of support," says Carla. "If the business community throws a whole bunch of money against an initiative, it's going down."

This small coalition of reformers has to work fast. It took them nine months to reach a tentative agreement; now, they have only 15 months left to bring in the rest of the state.

That's where Grady Gammage comes in. Gammage, an attorney for developers, has dealt with the state land department for more than 20 years, and his expertise is legendary. "Let's just put it this way," says Carla. "You don't want him working against you."

Fortunately for the reformers, Gammage has joined their ranks. After years of listening to developers complain about the bureaucratic maze of the state land department ("The brain damage just isn't worth it to them," he says) he decided that change could be in everyone's interest.

"I think the conservation community trusts me more than they trust other people who do what I do. Which may not be saying a lot," he says. "But I sort of hoped that I could help out by talking to both sides."

He already has. Though most of the group members have been secretive about the plan, Gammage went ahead and spilled some of the beans to the Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce early this year.

Carla remembers the meeting. "I was over in the corner saying 'Psst! Grady! Grady! We don't want to tell them this yet!' But watching him sell it was amazing. He wanted to get it out there, and see if anyone would faint. They didn't."

That's because Gammage knows the way to developers' hearts. State lands next to protected open space, he tells them, will automatically zoom up in value; developers near the McDowell Sonoran Preserve have seen their land values quadruple. That's good for developers, property owners, and the long-term health of the school trust.

Gammage also promises to ease the "brain damage" caused by the state land department.

"Developers are not evil people," he says. "What they can't deal with are processes that are incredibly slow, that are fraught with uncertainty, and where there's no goal in sight ... They see great benefit in trying to bring more clarity and certainty in how we deal with state land." Protecting a specific set of lands up front, he says, will ease the frustration on all sides.

And there's another, usually unspoken, reason for developers to listen to his pitch. Even though the Sierra Club's Proposition 202 bombed last year, developers know that environmentalists learned some lessons. Failure to protect urban state lands, says Gammage, will only build support for a smarter and stronger sequel to the growth initiative.

"Yes, 202 brought people to the table, and it keeps them at the table," he says. "No one wants to spend $4 million again."

While Grady Gammage woos developers, other reformers are trying to win over the education community. Parents, teachers and students - the direct beneficiaries of the earnings from school-trust land - could be the initiative's most powerful opponents. "If this debate turns into kids vs. cactus, it's going to be very unfortunate," says Arlan Colton, a former land department staffer who now lectures at the University of Arizona.

With school-trust earnings considerably less than 5 percent of the Arizona education budget, they're usually used to offset, not increase, the total amount of funding. But values of developable urban lands are rising by the day, and Colton says those calculations could change dramatically. "The potential for school-trust earnings is just huge," he says. "The leases could be worth a small fortune."

That's not the only problem. Arizona's chronically underfunded school system routinely ends up toward the bottom of state-by-state rankings. Many educators, who have been shafted for years by an unfriendly state Legislature, are reflexively wary of any attempts to cut their budget. "When you're fighting for every bloody dollar," says Colton, "you don't sneeze at funding."

Though the reform coalition has some support from educators, many education lobbyists and state-level officials are allied with the land department. This alliance may have been strengthened in late July, when a Utah meeting of the Western States Land Commissioners Association held a parallel conference for trust beneficiaries.

Many environmentalists argue that suburban state-land development nearly always adds to the burden on schools, since more houses means more children means more overcrowded classrooms. The coalition is now in the midst of analyzing the economic impacts of their plan, and they hope the results will win support from all factions of the education community. Ed Fox has some other strategies for keeping teachers and parents happy, but he's not sharing them. He knows it's crucial to avoid the "kids vs. cactus" dilemma.

"If we've got the education community on our side," he says conspiratorially, "it's kids and conservation, and it's easy. Really, really easy."

The initiative also needs the support of the still-powerful ranching community, which is why the plan would allow grazing to continue on protected state lands. "If it didn't, I expect it would fail miserably," says Brad Ack of the Grand Canyon Trust. "You look at polls that gauge the credibility of different interest groups, and ranchers always come out ahead of environmentalists."

This kind of realpolitik doesn't appeal to everyone. Tim Hogan of the Arizona Center for Public Interest Law, who has helped environmental groups challenge state-land grazing permits, says, "If the so-called reform means that conservation leases will not exclude grazing leases, it won't be a very good reform."

In response, Ack recalls the brouhaha last fall. "We're trying to build something out of the ashes of the 2000 election, something that can move forward politically," he says. "If it succeeds, it could be a big step."

Negotiations have dragged on longer than anyone expected, and the coalition has hundreds of thousands of signatures to gather before the initiative hits the ballot. Yet the signs are hopeful. Almost everyone agrees that the antique land department is in need of some sort of reform, and that some state lands are more valuable as open space than as new subdivisions. In late June, six conservation groups released poll results showing that more than half of Arizona voters favored protection of at least 1.3 million acres of state land.

The support is sweet for Greg Woodall and Carla, who have spent more than 10 years trying to complete the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. They may finally see it finished, and they may claim a bigger victory, too. Thanks to the coalition's efforts, their hometown battle has become something larger, something that may ultimately have enough oomph to push Arizona down the road to sprawl control.

Call it the not-in-our-backyard phenomenon.

Michelle Nijhuis is senior editor at High Country News.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Brad Ack, Grand Canyon Trust, 520/774-7488;
  • Luther Propst, Sonoran Institute, 520/290-0828;
  • Carla, McDowell Sonoran Land Trust, 480/998-7971;
  • Arizona State Land Department, 602/542-4621.