Big Bad Developer

George Johnson is quickly becoming the most notorious developer in Arizona


The tiny, endangered desert bighorn sheep herd of Ironwood Forest National Monument is a "treasure we ought to protect," Johnson says as he waits for Pinal zoning board members to return from an aerial inspection of his land near the monument.

And that's exactly what Johnson has been doing, he says. He even brought his helicopter down here and hired an ex-Marine sharpshooter. The sharpshooter has been sniping wayward goats from the helicopter since December. The sharpshooter has about 20 confirmed kills.

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.

The fact that the goats got loose in the first place is something that Johnson doesn't think he should be blamed for. Johnson's associate, Brian Tompsett, says that was related to a nasty windstorm in early November. Goat herders lost track of several dozen goats in the blinding dust of the freak Arizona storm, says Tompsett.

Then the goats climbed through the fence, which BLM officials say was too flimsy to hold goats.

Johnson says he bought the goats because goats eat anything and goat meat is going to become a hot commodity. The Chinese and Mexicans eat a lot of goat meat, he says. And he's expecting the U.S. goat meat market to turn bullish any moment now, especially with people flocking to the low-carb, Atkins-type diets.

"It was purely a business decision," Johnson says as the tour group is led to the base dining hall for lunch. "There is a growing market for goat meat."

The importation of the goats was definitely not, he says, designed to kill off the herd of desert bighorn sheep that was threatening his development plans.

"These goats are beautiful creatures," he tells New Times.

Tompsett corrects his boss:

"You mean sheep."

"Sheep. Yes. I mean the sheep."

The desert bighorn sheep of Ironwood Forest National Monument, which have a pure genetic ancestry dating back to the Pleistocene Epoch, definitely are a treasured creature in southern Arizona. Indeed, protecting the herd was one of the primary reasons environmentalists argued for the creation of the monument. Former president Bill Clinton designated the land surrounding the Silverbell Mountains as a national monument in one of his last actions before leaving office.

The herd is particularly important because a similar herd was wiped out in the nearby Santa Catalina Mountains, closer to Tucson. Environmentalists and scientists say the herd was destroyed by stresses from the encroaching urban landscape of Tucson.

Particularly damaging, they say, were developments at the base of the mountains such as Johnson's Canada Hills master-planned community.

But the Ironwood Forest bighorn were doing well. They were far from people -- until Johnson's proposed developments. And they had few threats to their health -- until Johnson's 5,000 goats showed up.

"We're still trying to figure out why on Earth this had to happen," says Tony Herrell, manager of Ironwood Forest National Monument. "It's just about the worst scenario you could think of to seriously threaten this herd."

Once loose, the domestic goats quickly moved into the most rugged country of the Silverbells. Goats and bighorn sheep both seek the roughest terrain for protection from predators such as mountain lions. Both species gravitate to the same feeding grounds.

If the goats carry diseases, those diseases quickly get passed on to the bighorn sheep. The native sheep have little immunity to the diseases carried by the invading species.

Within weeks of the goat exodus from Johnson's ranch, monument staff began seeing bighorn sheep with eyes matted shut from pus and infection. The sheep had been suddenly stricken with a form of pink eye common in domestic goats.

The disease may take several more weeks to run its course, researchers say. It will likely be late February before researchers and state and federal officials know the full extent of damage to the herd.

"It's wait and see right now," says Jim Heffelfinger of Game and Fish. "We've got a ways to go to know what the final verdict will be."

The 20,000-acre grading project, which DEQ's Owens says created "a lunar scape," was for planting, says Brian Tompsett.

Tompsett says the company planned to plant alfalfa and barley to feed cattle, although state investigators and environmentalists monitoring the site have never seen traditional farming equipment there.

Even with the sick sheep and the moonscape across a critical Santa Cruz watershed and treasured archaeological sites, those opposing Johnson's plan still are concerned that, considering their past history, Pinal County officials will vote in support of the project.

The planning board will vote on the La Osa project next week.

A yes vote would be particularly stunning considering the U.S. military's strong opposition to the project.

During the recent military presentation to the group touring the Army base, Johnson was clearly irritated, particularly when top brass showed slide after slide of the Johnson development smack in the middle of numerous critical military operations.

For example, La Osa Ranch sits along three of the eight low-level jet entry routes into the Barry Goldwater range, a key U.S. training area for fighter pilots. If the development succeeds, the Air Force might have to reduce the number of flight corridors in and out of the Goldwater range.

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