Arizona land swap dogged by questions

Yavapai Ranch Land Exchange called a bad deal for public, spur for sprawl

  • Fred Ruskin, on his ranch in west-central Arizona, hopes to push a land swap through Congress

    ANNE MINARD
  • Yavapai Ranch

    DIANE SYLVAIN
 

FLAGSTAFF, ARIZONA — In the early 1990s, Fred Ruskin, an anesthesiologist and pediatrician with a practice near Phoenix, Ariz., began to work with officials on the Prescott National Forest on what could be the largest — and the most controversial — public-for-private land swap in Arizona in 50 years. Together, they carved 35,000 acres out of Ruskin’s 50,000-acre Yavapai Ranch in west-central Arizona for the Forest Service. In return, the Forest Service agreed to give Ruskin 15,000 acres of federal land within his remaining ranch, along with chunks of developable land on the outskirts of Flagstaff, Williams, Camp Verde, Clarkdale and Cottonwood.

While the deal is not yet complete, Ruskin is already promising favors to the cities involved: He would sell about 750 acres to Flagstaff for a second airport runway, office buildings and a park near the airport — all of which are compatible with a voter-approved regional plan. He would also sell 970 acres to Williams, where officials plan to drill water wells.

Dennis Wells, the Williams city manager and a former state land commissioner, says much is at stake. If the trade doesn’t happen, "We would lose several really promising sites for drilling water wells … a site for the expansion of our water treatment plant … (and) we would not obtain land for the expansion of our cemetery and several parks around town."

The swap will also open more land for development: Ruskin plans to develop 750 acres near Flagstaff, and hopes to build a shopping center on 2,200 acres near Interstate 17 at Camp Verde.

Opponents of the exchange worry that a spike in new development could strain water supplies. "In the Camp Verde area alone, there are already thousands of acres of private land that remain undeveloped," says Tony Gioia, a Camp Verde town councilman. "We are faced with a crisis over ensuring sustainable growth on the existing land base, and this project would only exacerbate that difficulty."



Many residents say they’ve been left out of the loop, and environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and the Northern Arizona Audubon Society, are apprehensive about the deal’s lack of oversight. Rather than subjecting the Yavapai Ranch trade to the public scrutiny and environmental review that accompany typical land swaps, Ruskin asked Arizona’s Republican Sen. John McCain and Jon Kyl to push the exchange through Congress. Last spring, the duo introduced a bill that McCain predicted would have its day in Congress this month.

"The Forest Service did not choose a legislative trade," says Steve Sams, a spokesman for the Prescott National Forest. "That decision was made by the proponent of the land exchange." But Ruskin says he’s not in charge of the deal, either: "This is the Forest Service’s trade," he insists.

Janine Blaeloch, director of the Seattle-based Western Land Exchange Project, believes the public nearly always loses in these trades, but says that legislative trades are particularly frustrating. "This is a classic case. There’s no recourse. You can’t sue Congress for passing a law unless it’s unconstitutional," she says.

But Sen. McCain may be rethinking his support of the bill. Last December, he hosted two public meetings in Flagstaff and Camp Verde — and he faced off against boisterous, packed houses in both towns. Now, members of his staff say it’s unclear whether the congressman will continue to push the bill.

"The Forest Service made it sound as though it could be done a lot quicker," complains Fred Ruskin. "It’s been a comedy of errors. Everything that could go wrong, went wrong." Now, in order to hasten the process, Ruskin is threatening to develop the parcels of his land promised to the Forest Service.

The author writes from Flagstaff, Arizona.

Steve Sams Prescott National Forest spokesman, 928-443-8230

Anita Rochelle-Goss Citizens for Responsible Development, 928-649-0827

Janine Blaeloch Western Land Exchange Project, 206-325-3503 or www.westlx.org.

High Country News Classifieds
  • PHILANTHROPY COORDINATOR
    Wyoming Wildlife Federation - collaborates with the Executive Director and staff to ensure the effective implementation of all philanthropic activities. https://wyomingwildlife.org/hiring-philanthropy-coordinator/.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    HawkWatch International is hiring an Executive Director to lead the organization. The next leader of this growing organization must have: 1. Enthusiasm for conservation, birds...
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Home Resource is a non-profit community sustainability center. We work with, in, and for the community to reduce waste and build a more vibrant and...
  • COUNTRY ESTATE NEAR KINGS CANYON AND SEQUOIA PARKS
    Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • BRN DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Borderlands Restoration Network 501c3 is hiring a full-time Development Director. Description and job details can be found at https://www.borderlandsrestoration.org/job-opportunities.html
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST NEW MEXICO
    Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921
  • ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNING MANAGER
    The City of Fort Collins is seeking an Environmental Planning Manager in the Natural Areas Department. The Department has an annual budget of approximately $13...
  • WEB DESIGN AND CONTENT MANAGER
    We are seeking an experienced designer to be the team lead for web development and digital media. Part creator and part planner, this person should...
  • CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER
    at RCAC. See the full description at https://bit.ly/2WJ3HvY Apply at [email protected]
  • GRASSROOTS ORGANIZER
    The Utah Rivers Council is looking for an energetic individual with strong communication and organizing skills. The Grassroots Organizer works to ensure our campaigns are...
  • JOHN DEERE SNOW BLOWER 24"
    Newly refurbished and tuned. Older model, great condition. Gasoline engine. Chains on tires. Heavy duty for mountain snow. Call cellphone and leave message or email.
  • CARPENTER RANCH MANAGER
    Hiring a part-time ranch manager to live on The Nature Conservancy's Carpenter Ranch property in Hayden, CO. Responsibilities include: facility maintenance of historic ranch house,...
  • STRAW BALE, ADOBE, TIMBER FRAME, HEALTHY HOME, NEAR LA VETA PASS, CO
    unique custom home in Sangre de Cristo Mountains of CO near La Veta Pass, 3 bed, 2 1/2 bath, private gated park, two hours from...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, KANIKSU LAND TRUST
    Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Flathead Lakers are seeking a dynamic, self-motivated and proven leader to be our next Executive Director (ED).
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Blackfoot Challenge, a renowned collaborative conservation org in MT, seeks our next ED.
  • COPPER CANYON MEXICO CAMPING & BACKPACKING
    10-day tour from Los Mochis airport, 2/nyts El Fuerte, train, 2/nyts canyon rim hotel, 5/nyts camping. 520-324-0209, www.coppercanyontrails.org.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, ALASKA
    Earthjustice is hiring for a Staff Attorney
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    to lead an organization that funds projects in National Parks. Major gift fundraising and public lands experience critical. PD and app details @ peopleinparks.org.