Protecting Arizona's underground wonderland

State agency may condemn private land near Kartchner Caverns

  • Pasayten Wilderness in Washington state

    Diane Sylvain
 

BENSON, Ariz. - Twenty-seven years after he lowered himself through a crack in the Chihuahuan Desert and discovered Kartchner Caverns, Randy Tufts found himself in a well-lit meeting hall, defending his spelunker's Shangri-la (HCN, 4/24/00: Down under: Arizona boasts the 'show cave of the century').

This fall, the southeastern Arizona town of Benson, which bills itself as the "Home of Kartchner Caverns," considered a developer's proposal to put a $40 million resort a half-mile north of the cave's kaleidoscopic stalagmites and lustrous "soda straws." Tufts, along with Arizona State Parks, which manages Kartchner Caverns, feared that contaminated water from the spa could leach through a fractured limestone block and spoil the worldwide tourist magnet.

At a Benson City Council meeting in September, Tufts, still recovering from a life-saving bone marrow transplant, rose from his seat and spoke through a surgical mask. He told the council members they confronted the same dilemma he and fellow discoverer Gary Tenen faced in 1974: What do you do with a natural jewel that is as dangerous to develop as it is to leave unguarded?

"We need to look way ahead," Tufts warned. "We're not just talking about something that will have a 30-year lifetime."

The Benson City Council rejected Tufts' plea and approved a 180-acre rezoning for the Whetstone Springs luxury resort. So the state of Arizona threw down its trump card - the power of eminent domain. If the state can't negotiate a voluntary sale, it will convert the land from private to public property.

The developer, Helmut Horn of Coastal Hotels Group, has rejected two offers for just over $1 million, saying he'd already sunk $1.4 million into the project. If the hostile condemnation proceeds, it will be only the second ever in Arizona State Parks' 44-year history, and by far its largest. It won't be a popular move in Arizona's state Legislature, where support for private-property rights has always been strong. But Tufts says it has to be done. "It's the only choice left to State Parks," he says.

Cave dollars bypass Benson

For many in the town of Benson, the state's action is neither inevitable nor intelligent. So far, most of the park's economic windfall has bypassed the town of 5,000. Most tourists make day trips to Kartchner and dine and lodge in nearby Tucson or Sierra Vista.

Benson City Manager Mark Holt said the resort would have generated $500,000 to $750,000 in annual tax revenue for Benson's city coffers.

"It's hard to believe the state of Arizona - which spends millions of dollars on tourism and economic development to attract these developers - would use its authority and money to condemn the property," Holt says. "That kind of runs against the grain."

While it's obvious the Whetstone Springs resort would have boosted Benson's anemic economy, it isn't clear how the spa would have affected Kartchner Caverns. At the heart of the debate was a massive, 320 million-year-old block of Escabrosa limestone, a remnant of the days when southern Arizona was a shallow sea. Arizona State Parks and its consultants argued the highly faulted block could transmit water tainted with microbes, motor oil or pool chemicals from the resort to the caves.

"If some yahoo at the resort decided to dump a 55-gallon drum of cleanser or solvent, we don't know where it will go at this point," says Don Young, a consulting hydrologist for the park.

But the developers and their team of consultants counter that water would have to travel sideways for a half-mile in order to pollute the caves. "Water is always looking for the easiest route," says Shirlee Rhodes, the developers' Phoenix hydrologist. "You never say never, but it's just not realistic for water to travel that distance."

With sophisticated 3-D maps and cross-sections of the area, the developers also argued that a series of natural, vertical, quartz-filled faults would further insulate the caves. And their plan to pump water and treat effluent several miles off-site silenced critics who initially feared the resort's water use would dry up the caves.

Bob Buecher, a Tucson civil engineer who led the state's pre-development studies of Kartchner, says there was a "vanishingly small" chance the resort would damage the caves. Buecher and the developers say that if anyone is threatening the caves' health, it is Arizona State Parks, which built a visitor center and 60-space campground practically on top of the caves.

State gets mixed reviews

State parks officials defend their work, saying no other cave has been as painstakingly developed, with about $28 million invested in tourist-proofing measures. The moist caves and the bone-dry desert are separated by air-tight freezer doors. Some 180,000 people visit the caves each year, but tours are limited in size, restricted to a narrow path and led by guides who aren't shy about scolding tourists who touch the rock formations.

"I'm confident we have the hallmark in the world for cave development," Arizona State Parks Director Ken Travous says.

Not everyone has been happy with the state's handling of Kartchner. In a report splashed across the New York Times science section last year, researchers revealed the caves had gotten warmer and drier since they were opened to visitors in 1999.

Back then, Tufts and Tenen had harsh words for the caves' managers, accusing them of ignoring a crisis. Arizona State Parks countered that the fluctuations in temperature and humidity were within natural limits.

In hindsight, state officials say it was a mistake not to acquire the property north of the park years ago, while they planned Kartchner's development.

"I guess we missed it," says Jean Emery, the agency's chief of resources management. Since the parcel lacked water, access and infrastructure, development "just didn't seem that likely," she said.

Now, after spending so much time and money to develop Kartchner, cutting a check for another million dollars is a "drop in the bucket and a blink in geologic time," says director Travous.

"We're trying to think in generations here," he says. "Even if the resort doesn't have an impact for 100 years, it's still an impact we don't want.

Mitch Tobin covers water and other environmental issues for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.

More information about Kartchner Caverns is available from Arizona State Parks at: www.pr.state.az.us/parkhtml/kartchner.html. To take a "virtual tour" of the caves and learn more about their history, check the Arizona Daily Star's Web site: www.azstarnet.com/kartchner/.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Mitch Tobin

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