Cold Shoulder

State gives feds the brush-off on open-space preservation plan

Governor Jane Dee Hull says she's not interested in a proposal by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to federalize nearly 200,000 acres of state trust land to protect it from developers.

In a March 7 letter to U.S. Senator Jon Kyl and other Arizona congressional representatives, the governor says she instead wants the feds to pay up for state land the government already turned into national monuments, including 22,000 acres in the recently designated Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument.

Babbitt has identified at least three areas of the state that he'd like to protect from development, as New Times reported ("Babbitt's Secret Growth-Control Plan," March 2). He would federalize the state trust land within those areas -- preferably with the state's blessing -- and then repay the state by deeding over Bureau of Land Management holdings near rural communities that are surrounded by federal lands. This would help curtail growth outside of Phoenix and Tucson, preserve open space and benefit smaller cities that are currently unable to grow.

Babbitt pitched the plan in Kingman two weeks ago, but his reception at the Mohave County Board of Supervisors was chilly. The county wants the state trust land Babbitt identified in Mohave, but county officials say they've had a rough time working with the State Land Department in the past and don't want to have to deal with the agency again to get the acreage.

Babbitt met with Hull late last month at the governor's request to talk about 22,000 acres of state trust lands recently surrounded by the designation of Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument in the Arizona strip north of the Grand Canyon.

But Babbitt had other ideas.

He wants to federalize nearly 200,000 acres of state trust lands in three parcels: high Sonoran Desert between Prescott National Forest and Lake Pleasant; grasslands east of Tucson; and high desert in Aravaipa Canyon, southwest of Safford. This, he reasons, would fit nicely with the governor's Growing Smarter Plus legislation by preserving open space -- a major concern for Arizona residents -- while lessening the need for growth-control boundaries -- a major concern for the Arizona governor, who hopes to thwart the Citizens' Growth Management Initiative sponsored by the Sierra Club, which will appear on the ballot this November.

In fact, former attorney general Grant Woods was so taken with Babbitt's plan that he told New Times he abandoned his role as head of CGMI with the understanding that the governor would seriously consider it. Woods couldn't be reached for comment on Hull's letter.

As compensation for the taking, Babbitt would offer BLM lands in Mohave County as well as land near Wickenburg, Oracle, Florence and Yuma. The state could sell the land to benefit the schools trust and at the same time help those rural communities, where private property is scarce.

Hull has refused to talk to New Times about the February meeting, but her press secretary, Francie Noyes, says that the governor stopped Babbitt short when he brought up his new land proposal.

"He got in there and said, 'You know, I have some ideas,' and the governor said, 'The meeting is about inholdings,'" according to Noyes. "And so he raised it and he went back to the topic she wanted to talk about."

Hull is concerned that the U.S. government has not yet compensated the state for some 60,000 acres of state trust land affected by other federal actions, including 22,000 acres in the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, which President Clinton signed into existence in January.

Because state trust land cannot be exchanged for federal land under the state constitution, Babbitt's plan would require an act of Congress.

Last week, Hull fired off letters to the Arizona congressional delegation to state her displeasure with the notion.

"In that meeting, as you might expect, Bruce outlined his desire to preserve larger portions of the state," Hull wrote. "However, my purpose in meeting with him was to make sure the state is made whole for past federal actions. We concluded the meeting by agreeing to have local BLM officials and the State Land Department meet to review the possibilities of an agreement restoring state trust lands to federal declarations. Those meetings are going forward right now."

But, Noyes insists, there was -- and is -- no further discussion of the new lands Babbitt would federalize.

Any other land issues, Noyes says, need to be carried out in "an open and public process for the disposition of state lands," a process that would involve the State Land Department and local governments. A process, in other words, that would take far longer than the 10 months that Babbitt and his boss, President Bill Clinton, will remain in office.

Babbitt did not return calls from New Timesseeking comment on Hull's position.

Despite Hull's lack of enthusiasm, Babbitt took his proposition to Kingman on March 3, including a map of Mohave County showing BLM lands he could potentially turn over to the state there. Although no exact acreages were available, the map suggests Babbitt was talking about far more land than was detailed in the BLM maps obtained by New Times earlier this month. Specifically, the map he presented in Kingman showed a corridor of BLM lands along Interstate 40 from Kingman to Needles, California, and another corridor along U.S. 93 toward Las Vegas, as well as substantial parcels in the Arizona strip on the Utah and Nevada borders.

Surprisingly, commissioners were skeptical.

"The concept itself makes some sense," says Mohave County Supervisor Jim Zaborsky, "but the problem we have from a Mohave County standpoint is it's much easier for us to deal with the Bureau of Land Management as far as land issues are concerned than with State Land."

Zaborsky and his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors, Buster Johnson and Carol Anderson, agree that the State Land Department sets land prices too high for the local market, thereby discouraging potential developers.

At the meeting, according to Johnson, Hull's environmental adviser, Maria Baier, criticized Babbitt's suggestions, and said that the governor wants to hang on to state trust lands because they produce revenue for schools.

Babbitt pointed out that Hull's idea to protect income-generating state trust lands is to establish an open-space "reserve" from scattered lands many of which are virtually undevelopable anyway. That reserve would require a change in the state constitution because trust lands are supposed to be managed for profit and can't be redesignated unless they are sold.

"If she's so supportive of the kids, why is she taking 270,000 acres out of state trust land without any payment at all?" Babbitt reportedly said. "I think we can do better than that."

"Better than that" is just what the state has in mind, according to Baier.

"Trying to get value out of BLM land for what's being proposed as trade bait is a tall order," she says.

The state trust land in question is "really valuable stuff," she continues. "We're interested. We have priorities. Before we go forward, we'd like to make sure we're made whole for what we're already owed."

Contact Michael Kiefer at his online address: michael.kiefer@newtimes.com

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