Land exchange could short-change monuments

 

ARIZONA

A land-exchange referendum slated for the November ballot could set the stage for shifting the borders of the Sonoran Desert and Ironwoods national monuments, two of President Clinton's 11th-hour designations (HCN, 1/29/01: Monumental changes). Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Arizona Gov. Jane Hull have conferred several times in the past year about how to accommodate power companies with rights-of-way on the edges of the monuments, says Hull's press secretary, Francie Noyes.

The state Legislature voted last year to put Senate Concurrent Resolution 1004 on the ballot, a measure that Arizona State Land Department spokesman Nick Simonetta says would amend Arizona's constitution to permit land exchanges between the state and federal, municipal or county agencies in order to conserve open space.

Similar referenda have appeared on the state's ballot four times since 1990, and all of them have failed (HCN, 10/23/00: Arizona's 202 takes aim at sprawl).

Conservationists worry that the resolution would allow state land inside the monuments to be swapped for federal land on the fringes, letting power companies duck out of federal laws requiring environmental assessments. "Land exchanges are not a bad idea," says Sierra Club conservation director Sandy Bahr. "We just don't think they should move forward without adequate checks in place, and we haven't seen those from the land department or the legislation."

Noyes says that the preservation of monuments such as Sonoran Desert must be balanced with competing interests from industry. "It would still make a wonderful monument," she says. "We would just shift the borders a matter of a couple miles."