Private landowners become lords of the public estate

In Arizona, a strange dispute illustrates a growing problem

  • German tourists Drews and Hanna Beckmann were blocked from visiting Aravaipa Canyon by the locked gate on Norma Tapia's property. Tapia was later arrested and charged with threatening a visitor with a gun

    Mitch Tobin, Arizona Daily Star

SAFFORD, Arizona — Norma Tapia didn’t set out to become the fulcrum in a bitter debate over access to public land. She was just looking for justice for her 15-year-old son.

Last year, the boy was detained on an undisputed charge of child molestation dating from 2002. Tapia asked the Graham County sheriff to investigate another boy who allegedly molested her son, but the sheriff’s department says the trail is too cold. In a dramatic bid for attention, Tapia took hostage one of Arizona’s rare perennial streams. All she needed was a padlocked gate.

Aravaipa Canyon, north of Tucson, is a treat for wildlife and recreationists alike — it is one of the few places in the Southwest that echoes with the startling whistle of common black-hawks. It’s also home to bighorn sheep, javelina and native fishes. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management allows 50 hikers per day into its wilderness area, and The Nature Conservancy manages a preserve nearby.

But Tapia’s locked gate has prohibited access to the canyon’s east end since January. "I’m gonna hold fast," she says. "I’m putting pressure on (the county) so they’ll remember my son every time they think of this gate."

Details aside, Tapia’s personal battle has a lot in common with other property disputes in the West. The region’s patchwork of private, state and federal lands has always posed a management dilemma because it invites strategically placed private landowners to act as lords of estates they don’t actually own. Exasperated agency officials and environmentalists increasingly wonder how well-protected the West’s public lands really are, if private landowners can lock out the public — and public-land managers.

Meanwhile, as the BLM and Graham County debate who should break the Aravaipa Canyon stalemate, Tapia is charging people $25 to pass through her gate. And other property owners along the road are starting to limit public access to the canyon, too.

Whose problem is it?

Graham County Supervisor Jim Palmer has been getting an earful from local businesses, permit-holders blocked from entering the canyon, and the BLM. The BLM wants the county to reopen access to Aravaipa Canyon, saying that because the county has maintained the road for more than 10 years, it has the "status of a public highway or road under Arizona law."

But Palmer says that even though the county maintains the road, it’s not a designated county road. To force Tapia to open her gate, he says, the county would likely have to "condemn and compensate." County officials believe that the BLM has stronger legal backing for re-opening the road because the agency and its permit-holders have a reason to be beyond the gate.

The state could step in to negotiate access easements, but that would be tricky, because 30 landowners have property along the road, according to Sal Palazzolo, private-lands stewardship coordinator at the Arizona Game and Fish Department. "If you work with one landowner, then another will see that you are willing to pay (for an easement) — the next landowner could put a gate up," he says. "We have no guarantee that we wouldn’t just throw hundreds of thousands of dollars at the problem and never fix it."

In fact, other property owners are already erecting gates in other parts of Aravaipa Canyon — not for money, they say, but to discourage the off-road vehicle traffic and illegal trash dumping that have increased in recent years.

Both are real problems, according to the BLM and The Nature Conservancy, which are working together to develop an ecosystem management plan for Aravaipa Canyon. The plan would update management guidelines and recreation rules for the entire watershed. "We have to find a way to manage impacts both for private landowners and public land managers, especially since Aravaipa is close to large, rapidly expanding urban areas," says Tom Collazo, Arizona conservation director for The Nature Conservancy.

Diane Drobka, spokeswoman for the BLM’s Safford district, anticipates that the plan will help reduce area residents’ frustration over the increasing numbers of visitors who drive, camp and hunt near their private land. She recognizes, however, that it would not resolve every access issue, particularly when landowners such as Tapia have unanticipated motives.

Holding out on inholdings

The problem goes beyond easements, management plans and peeved landowners. It begins with Washington, D.C., says Sandy Bahr, conservation outreach director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter: "Congress is not providing money to ensure that there is legal access to public land where it is blocked by private inholdings." While in the past, Congress set aside money for inholdings and easements, now agencies must try to work land swaps, or recreationists must pay private land owners for access, like tipping a bouncer to get into a club (HCN, 5/2/05: "As threats loom, conservation dollars disappear").

In Nevada’s Ruby Mountains, for example, "It’s nearly impossible to get onto public lands without paying a private trespass fee," says Kelly Clark, with the Nevada Department of Wildlife. "Anyone wanting access must build a relationship with the landowner and pay fees," she says.

Such situations have become more common wherever roads leading into public lands cross private land — and wherever landowners know that they can seek compensation, says county supervisor Palmer. "Some of these folks seem like they’re after a piece of the action," he says. "And it feels like the way of the future."

Disputes over the public’s ability to access its land are sure to balloon as the population grows and recreationists search for new terrain, says Shawn Tierney, access and acquisitions director for The Access Fund, a climbing advocacy group. "We’re all behind the eight-ball on figuring out where access problems exist," says Tierney. "Land managers aren’t even close to being ready for this."

The author is a freelance writer based in Phoenix, Arizona.

Jim Palmer, Graham County Supervisor, 928-428-3250

Diane Drobka, BLM Safford district spokeswoman, 928-348-4403

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