Tug-of-war continues over trust lands

 

Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article appears as a sidebar to another news article, "Wildcat subdivisions fuel fight over sprawl."

In the summer of 1998, Arizona Republican Gov. Jane Hull pulled together 15 conservationists, business leaders and state legislators and formed the Growing Smarter Commission. Their task would be to ward off what Hull saw as the Sierra Club's attempts to put radical growth control measures on the ballot.

In search of common ground, the commission turned to preserving as open space a portion of the state's 9.3 million acres of trust lands. The federal government deeded these lands to Arizona in 1912, the year it became a state, to be sold or leased for the benefit mainly of public schools. At present, the only way to preserve them is to buy them outright.

After nearly 18 months of debate, the commission recommended establishing a first-of-its-kind conservation trust that would set aside trust lands for their ecological value. It also suggested selling trust land with deed restrictions that would limit what a buyer could do on the land. The plan would require changing the state's constitution, so it would require a public vote. And as an extra incentive for voters, the plan would immediately protect about 70,000 acres if passed.

Gov. Hull signed the Growing Smarter bill on Feb. 21 with great fanfare, saying the plan "makes Arizona a national leader in land use and growth management."

But Hull and the Legislature changed some commission recommendations to make the package palatable to rural lawmakers. First, they capped the amount of land that could be set aside in conservation reserves at 3 percent - 270,000 to 300,000 acres. Reserves would have to be recommended by the local county or city council and be approved by the state land commissioner and an independent citizens' commission. The Legislature would then have to approve the reserve by a two-thirds majority.

Those changes infuriated environmentalists.

"It's extremely frustrating to have brought the ideas this far and then have a 3 percent solution," says Carla, executive director of the McDowell Sonoran Land Conservancy, who is legally known by a single name (HCN, 2/28/00: 'We need a whole paradigm shift').

To make matters worse, the 70,000 acres initially picked for preservation are undevelopable anyway, says Luther Propst, with the Tucson-based Sonoran Institute. Most of the land nominated consists of steep slopes and mountaintops, he says, and adding any more land to the conservation reserve will be "almost impossible."

Both Propst and Carla say their groups will likely push for a ballot initiative in 2002 that will counteract the Growing Smarter Plus plan if it is approved in November.

On a related note, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has approached Gov. Hull about trading sensitive trust lands for federal lands elsewhere in the state. The feds could then protect that land, while the state could make money for the schools - similar to the deal Babbitt cut with Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt in 1998 (HCN, 5/25/98: Monumental deal over Utah's trust lands). Hull, apparently still bitter about Babbitt's backing of the new Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument on the Arizona Strip, has refused to consider such a trade.

Former HCN intern Tim Westby reports for the Park Record in Park City, Utah.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Tim Westby

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