Big Bad Developer

George Johnson is quickly becoming the most notorious developer in Arizona

MARANA -- George Johnson watches stonefaced as two Black Hawk helicopters rise from the tarmac and tilt toward Ragged Top Mountain, the heart of Ironwood Forest National Monument southeast of Phoenix and home to one of Arizona's last remaining native herds of desert bighorn sheep.

The Army helicopters are loaded down with members of the Pinal County Planning and Zoning Commission. The Army is taking the board members for an aerial tour of Johnson's sprawling La Osa Ranch, a 16-mile-long chunk of remote Sonoran Desert near the mountain that Johnson wants to turn into Arizona's eighth-largest city.

With the help of a little shock and awe, the Army hopes to convey to Pinal County leaders that the Scottsdale developer's proposed city between the national monument and the air base would wipe out military flight patterns and critical Apache attack helicopter night training exercises and might just cause the closure of this base, which provides hundreds of millions of dollars to the Arizona economy. And all this disruption to the Western Army National Guard Aviation Training Site would certainly damage the readiness of American soldiers in combat with al-Qaeda in the Arizona-like landscapes of Iraq and Afghanistan.

George Johnson's three troublesome developments.
George Johnson's three troublesome developments.
Johnson has since moved his goat herd away from the bighorn  sheep haven northwest of Tucson.
courtesy of Center for Biological Diversity
Johnson has since moved his goat herd away from the bighorn sheep haven northwest of Tucson.

Making the scene more uncomfortable for Johnson: He is left on the tarmac with the rest of the Army's guests this day -- a tough crowd of about a dozen state and federal officials, scientists and environmental activists who believe Johnson also is waging war on the people, water, air and wildlife of Arizona.

Unlike the Army, they're not angry about what Johnson wants to do. They're angry about what Johnson has already done.

Johnson already has racked up numerous violations of state environmental laws from two other massive developments in Arizona, one of which -- Johnson Ranch -- covers the southeastern corner of the Valley.

One fine is the largest of its kind ever imposed by the state Department of Environmental Quality.

Another penalty is the largest ever by the state Department of Water Resources.

His dealings at Johnson Ranch and his project in Apache County along the Little Colorado River also have sparked numerous allegations from bribery to failing to notify families that their water was toxic.

La Osa Ranch, however, is where Johnson is really making his reputation as a scoundrel.

Along the border of Ironwood National Monument and the Army training site, Johnson has begun a massive grading project that, although Johnson denies it, appears to be the initial stages of a 67,000-home master-planned community that has yet to be approved by any county, state or federal official.

The grading of the 20,000 acres, according to two DEQ Notices of Violation, was done without proper permits and may have polluted the Santa Cruz River and its tributaries in this delicate region. Johnson denies the DEQ charges, saying he didn't need any permits because the grading, which one archaeologist describes as a "moonscape," is part of his ranching and farming operations.

The grading also wiped out a Santa Cruz wetland that one University of Arizona biologist says had served as critical habitat for wildlife in the area. And the grading and any development could cause extreme problems for people and wildlife along the Santa Cruz.

"That area is an inland delta, a huge flood plain," says Phil Rosen, a UofA biologist who was on the tour of the Army base. "If you constrict that area, you're going to see a fantastic amount of problems."

The grading project also affected swaths of state and federal land along the Santa Cruz and may have destroyed several Hohokam archaeological sites dating back as much as a thousand years.

Then there are the goats.

Late last year, in a strange and apparently unprecedented move for an Arizona ranch owner, Johnson brought 5,000 domestic goats from Texas to his land -- some of it state-leased land -- next to the Ironwood Forest National Monument.

At least 140 goats quickly broke through the cattle fencing that separated them from the national monument.

The goats, which are known to cavort with bighorn sheep, also are thought to have carried an eye disease that can be fatal to bighorn sheep.

Now state and federal officials, as well as a couple of sharpshooters hired by Johnson, are scouring the Silverbell Mountains, hunting for goats to kill and sheep to medicate. The monthlong hunt has created a rolling black comedy through the Silverbell Mountains and may still result in the extermination of one of Arizona's last native desert bighorn sheep herds.

Prior to the mass grading, the most vocal and organized opposition to Johnson's development had focused on protecting this herd.

At least 30 of the estimated 100 sheep are now blind from the disease. Only one is confirmed dead, but state Game and Fish officials are worried because they can't find the other 70 or so bighorn in this extremely rugged country.

"It's really scary because when you don't see them, that means they're hunkered down sick or just dead," says Jim Heffelfinger, regional game specialist for Game and Fish. "We simply don't know yet if the herd will survive."

Johnson has been issued a trespassing notice by the federal Bureau of Land Management. On December 18, the state Land Department informed Johnson that he was in default on his state land lease for "granting permission to another to cause waste and loss on State Trust Land" and for violating lease conditions "by destroying native plants and an archaeological site."

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