Crash kills a conservation deal

  Dollars have downed a landmark bid to hold together one of Arizona's most scenic ranches.

This spring, Arizona State Parks offered rancher Bob Sharp and his sisters $9 million to preserve the family's ranch in the lush San Rafael Valley south of Tucson (HCN, 3/2/98). A conservation easement would have given the state the development rights, while the family would still own the land. The purchase would have been the first of its kind in Arizona, and one of the largest ever in the West.

But in July, the family nixed the deal and put its 22,000-acre spread up for sale for $24 million. "Many factors - corporate taxes, estate taxes and generational transfers' went into the family's decision to sell instead of conserve, Sharp told the Arizona Daily Star.

State Parks Director Ken Travous adds that the ranch's standing as a corporation became a sticking point. "Because the ranch is a corporation, the family says they would get taxed at 75 or 80 percent on the deal," Travous says. "That's a problem."

Now, the Sharp's property, where the movie "Oklahoma" was filmed, looks likely to be carved into ranchettes in Arizona's hot rural subdivision market. The episode could set back the use of conservation easements in Arizona, says Luther Propst, head of the nonprofit Sonoran Institute in Tucson, which had helped structure the deal. "This was a very visible, special and big test, so if it doesn't work, it hurts."

As the deal collapsed, several environmentalists attacked the easement, saying it provided too little public access, too little ecological monitoring and too much grazing. "This is not a conservation easement like Parks says," said Jon Tate, head of the Western Gamebird Alliance in Tucson. "It's paying a rancher to do what he is disposed to do anyway."

Arizona State Parks and the Arizona chapter of The Nature Conservancy are both working to resurrect the deal. "I've instructed my staff to put together a last and final offer for an outright purchase (of the ranch)," says the state's Travous. "Remember: It's not over till someone else buys the place." - Mark Muro

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