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
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Job Title: Executive Director Reports To: Board of Directors Compensation: $75,000 to $80,000, plus generous benefits and paid leave. Funding for relocation expenses available. Classification:...
  • WATER DIRECTOR
    Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis. Application review will begin on April 2, 2021 and will continue until the position has been filled....
  • CLIMATE JUSTICE FELLOW
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks applicants for a climate justice fellowship. The fellowship...
  • VIRGINIA SPENCER DAVIS FELLOWSHIP
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is offering a fellowship for early-career journalists interested in...
  • COLORADO WILD PUBLIC LANDS VIDEO CONTEST
    Please submit your video of 30 seconds or less, taken on public lands, to [email protected] by May 15th for a chance to win in one...
  • WMAN NETWORK COORDINATOR
    WESTERN MINING ACTION NETWORK (WMAN) CONTRACT OPPORTUNITY CLOSING DATE: Feb. 19, 2021 WMAN is seeking a team member to coordinate the various network activities to...
  • FRIENDS OF THE INYO IS HIRING TRAIL AMBASSADORS FOR THE SUMMER OF 2021
    Friends of the Inyo's Trail Ambassadors (TAs) support the Inyo, Sierra, & Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forests and other partners by providing positive public service, outreach, interpretation,...
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • MANAGER PERMACULTURE LANDSCAPE CONTRACTOR
    Permaculture / Landscape Company Manager / Site Lead Red Ant Works, Inc. - 20+ year landscape construction and horticultural care company seeks manager and site...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is looking for a passionate, dynamic, organized, and technology-savvy communications professional to help grow our membership and presence in the Four...
  • ENERGY AND CLIMATE PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    San Juan Citizens Alliance seeks an Energy and Climate Program Associate to focus on public outreach, education and organizing to advance campaigns to mitigate climate...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    This position provides professional real estate services and is responsible for managing and completing real estate projects utilizing a project management database that is designed...
  • WILDFIRE MITIGATION SPECIALIST
    The Wildfire Mitigation Specialist is responsible for delivering wildfire risk mitigation information, recommendations and programmatic resources to wildland urban interface homeowners, community members and partners....
  • DEVELOPMENT POSITIONS
    Thorne Nature Experience is hiring for a Development Director and Senior Individual Giving Manager. Individuals will work collaboratively with Thorne's Executive Director to develop and...
  • SENIOR PROGRAM MANAGER, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION & ENERGY
    The National Parks Conservation Association, a 100-year-old nonprofit advocacy organization and the nation's leading voice for national parks seeks a Senior Program Manager, Landscape Conservation...
  • BACKCOUNTRY AND FRONTCOUNTRY STEWARDSHIP CREW MEMBERS
    The San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) is hiring a crew of ambassadors to work in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service to educate visitors on...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NATURAL HISTORY INSTITUTE
    The Executive Director is the chief executive officer of the Natural History Institute (NHI). The Executive Director has broad authority to lead and manage the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    - The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region - The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful,...
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Native plant seeds for the Western US. Trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers and regional mixes. Call or email for free price list. 719-942-3935. [email protected] or visit...