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
  • DEVELOPMENT AND OPERATIONS COORDINATOR
    Development & Operations Coordinator Terms: 1.0 FTE (full-time), Salary DOE ($45,000 - $55,000) Benefits: Paid Time Off (12-24 days/year depending on tenure), Paid Holidays (10/year),...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • CARBON RANCH PLANNER
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • EDUCATION AND OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Education and Outreach Program Director The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic,...
  • WESTERN DIVISION DIRECTOR OF FIELD PROGRAMS
    DEADLINE TO APPLY: October 29, 2021 LOCATION FLEXIBLE (WESTERN HUB CITY PREFERRED) Overview The Land Trust Alliance is the voice of the land trust community....
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...