Arizona has told the city of Phoenix that if it wants to save a state-owned desert wash teeming with wildlife, it must buy the land for $25 million.


A citizens' group hopes to persuade state officials that the historic, biological and recreational value of Cave Creek Wash makes it worth the money. But state staffers say the wash has been degraded by off-road vehicles and floods that have washed away much of the vegetation that grew along its banks.


Pristine or not, the state land department is legally required to sell or lease its trust land for maximum profit, and growing suburbs provide a strong market for sand and gravel. Last year, the department leased 144 acres in the wash to Wheeler Construction Co. of Phoenix for $2.5 million over 10 years. Applications from other sand and gravel companies have since flooded in.


The revenue is supposed to support Arizona's public school system. However, critics say if the land is sold, schools won't profit because the Legislature slashes state aid to education by the amount of the sale. "No school will get a dime," writes Arizona Republic reporter Laurie Roberts. "We get a gravel pit. Right where a preserve ought to be."


* Michelle McClellan