In place of a bigger park, Tucson gets houses

  • New house takes shape in Saguaro Nat'l Park area

    David Sanders/Arizona Daily Star

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 Fund.

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).

As a 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?"

Much more 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 year.

"It's happened all over"

Saguaro is not the only national park where a lack of federal funds has allowed private homes to rise within park boundaries.

"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.

"We 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 anymore."

The sight of homes lying within the park's boundaries has renewed a long, bitter debate between environmentalists and the federal government.

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 deficit.

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," says Kolbe.

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 1991.

"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.

"It 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 Tucson.

You can contact ...

* Saguaro National Park West, 520/733-5188;

* Rep. Jim Kolbe, 520/881-3588.

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