Babbitt's Secret Growth-Control Plan

While the state and the Sierra Club jockey to curb urban expansion, the Secretary of the Interior is quietly pushing his own proposal. We've got the maps.

Two weeks ago, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt slipped into Phoenix to talk to Governor Jane Dee Hull about a land trade proposal that could fundamentally reshape the escalating debate between developers and conservationists over unbridled urban sprawl.

On the same day that legislators were duking it out over Hull's latest growth-management scheme, Babbitt spread out a sheaf of maps that showed his plans to federalize nearly 200,000 acres of state trust land and absorb it into Bureau of Land Management holdings to protect it from development. Coupled with Hull's plan to set aside 270,000 acres of state trust land, nearly a half-million acres would be saved from red-tiled roofs and golf courses.

The former Arizona governor's own growth-management plan is on nobody's radar screen. Neither the environmentalists nor many of Hull's top growth-management advisers have been apprised. But it has already had political consequences.

Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt
Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt
Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt
Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt

Working behind the scenes last month, Babbitt won over former Arizona attorney general Grant Woods from the environmental camp. Babbitt pitched his plan as he and Woods hiked together on Perry Mesa in the newly designated Agua Fria National Monument just off Interstate 17 north of Black Canyon City.

In fact, it was Babbitt's proposal that convinced Woods to abandon his role spearheading the Sierra Club's Citizens' Growth Management Initiative. Instead, Woods signed on to Governor Hull's most recent growth-management plan, dubbed Growing Smarter Plus -- on the condition that Hull seriously consider the Babbitt plan.

In Woods' view, Babbitt's additions complement the Growing Smarter Plus plan and obviate the need for the Sierra Club initiative.

Even as Hull and Babbitt met on February 16, Hull's allies in the state Legislature were hammering out the details of Growing Smarter Plus, Hull's second attempt in as many election years to undercut the environmentalists and their ballot initiative. The initiative would draw growth boundaries around cities and otherwise make business miserable for Hull's developer friends.

Most of Arizona is owned by the state or the federal government. The federal property, for the most part, cannot be sold. However, under the state constitution, state trust land must be leased or sold to help finance schools. State trust land is where development is most likely to occur, and so it has become the growth-management battlefield.

Hull, who is supported by developers, needs to pay attention to the overwhelming number of citizens who want to preserve the Arizona Highways vistas they moved here for. And so a section of Growing Smarter Plus aimed at preserving a small amount of state trust land is bound for the November ballot where it will sit next to the Sierra Club's plan. Both could be voted into law.

Getting Woods on her side was a major coup for Hull.

Now, Woods has to convince Hull to sign on with Babbitt, which could be tricky, considering that Woods describes Babbitt's plan as creating "de facto growth boundaries," and Hull fears growth boundaries.

The parcels that Babbitt has identified would throw monkeywrenches into the sprawl machine. Maps obtained by New Times show Babbitt wants to federalize:

• 58,000 acres of state trust lands scattered in a large parcel north of Phoenix that runs approximately from Carefree Highway on the south to the Bradshaw Mountains and the boundaries of the Prescott National Forest on the north, and from Lake Pleasant on the east to Wickenburg on the west. This parcel, coupled with the newly declared Agua Fria National Monument on the other side of I-17, would effectively stop Phoenix's expansion north of the Carefree Highway.

• 106,000 acres of state trust land east of Tucson that would protect rare grasslands and link together four isolated patches of the Coronado National Forest into one continuously protected landscape, a landscape already coveted by real estate agents.

• 27,000 acres of state trust land in Aravaipa Canyon near Safford that would plug a gap between the Coronado National Forest and a BLM-held wilderness area.

As compensation, Babbitt is so far offering up 72,500 acres of federal land in Phoenix and Tucson; near Florence, Wickenburg, Yuma and Bullhead City; and near the Utah and Nevada borders. That land would be turned over to the state land trust to be sold or leased as seen fit by the State Land Department, with the proceeds benefiting Arizona schools. The plan might be salable in Arizona because many of the federal parcels the state would get as compensation would allow those cities and towns to expand into areas that are now locked up by federal ownership.

And if a land exchange in Utah last year is any precedent, Babbitt likely would be willing to give away much more.

Babbitt refused to discuss his plan with New Times. But he apparently wants Hull and her cronies to come along nicely, and Grant Woods is the man in the middle.

"Lame ducks have wings," Babbitt has told the press in recent months. With his tenure as Secretary of the Interior ending when President Clinton leaves office early next year, Babbitt is free to show his environmental colors, and in several speeches across the West has announced that he would like to use federal power to protect ecosystems regardless of whether local governments want them protected.

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