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.
Environmentalists doubt this grading at La Osa was for farming  or ranching as Johnson insists.
courtesy of Center for Biological Diversity
Environmentalists doubt this grading at La Osa was for farming or ranching as Johnson insists.
A page from the deed for George Johnson's gift to the daughter of a Pinal County official.
A page from the deed for George Johnson's gift to the daughter of a Pinal County official.
Farm equipment? State officials aren't buying that argument.
Courtesy of Center for Bilogical Diversity
Farm equipment? State officials aren't buying that argument.

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."

Indeed, in the last year, Johnson has arguably become the new king of Arizona's bad-boy developers.

Johnson, a stout, leather-skinned, silver-haired man in his 60s, wears dark sunglasses as he stands on the tarmac awaiting the Army tour. His detractors occasionally glance back at him, some rolling their eyes, others keeping the stoic faces of diplomacy.

Johnson remains expressionless, a model of civility.

But inside, he is boiling.

"I'm not buying the Army's numbers, I'm not buying any of this stuff," Johnson says as he waits for the Black Hawks to return. "I don't know why people are targeting me, but they are."

As his ire builds, Johnson catches himself. He changes the subject and removes his sunglasses. His cold stare turns soft.

"You know, I'm out there with my guys taking care of this goat problem," he says. "And that's not something that's pleasant. I don't like killing animals. Hell, I can't even shoot a pheasant anymore. They're just so beautiful."

It's a strangely delicate moment for a man known for his bulldog demeanor and tactics.

As Johnson finishes, a barely audible comment wafts from the group of scientists standing nearby.

"What a crock of . . . "


George Johnson has been developing properties in Arizona, California, Utah and Texas for 30 years.

But land development has been in his blood much longer than that. His family ran the H.G. Johnson Produce Company, which, from 1949 to 1964, oversaw a massive farming and produce-shipping operation from 12,000 acres near Guaymas, Mexico.

In 1952, the Johnson company first ventured into home building, developing three subdivisions in Oklahoma City from 1952 to 1955.

Through the 1960s, the Johnson company was involved in building more than 150 commercial buildings and strip malls throughout Arizona, California and Texas.

In the 1970s, George Johnson, increasingly on his own, returned to residential building, constructing more than 6,000 homes and apartment buildings throughout Mesa, Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe and Tucson.

After developing a slew of commercial properties and luxury golf resorts through the 1980s and 1990s, Johnson began setting his sights on much larger properties as well as lands in much more environmentally sensitive parts of Arizona. He also became interested in controlling services to these areas. He now owns a company called Johnson Utilities, which provides water and wastewater services to parts of the southeast Valley, as well as Johnson Cable & Communications and Central Arizona Communications, both of which serve the southeast Valley.

He began building his empire in the Valley in the mid-1990s with the purchase of massive chunks of land in the far southeast that would eventually become Johnson Ranch.

One of those chunks was 136 acres of state land. According to state land trust records obtained by New Times, Johnson was the only bidder on that land in 1996. He got the land for the minimum bidding price of $310,000.

That sale and Johnson's promise to build a beautiful city on the land was the start of a cozy relationship between Johnson and Pinal County officials, a relationship that has given rise to myriad accusations of bribery, fraud, broken promises, environmental destruction and other abuses of the public trust.

Most allegations around the 3,200-acre development involve water. Whether he got it legally. Whether he got enough of it. Whether it's any good. Whether he is capable of delivering it to people. Whether he can handle the wastewater generated by such a large development.

In the late 1990s, Johnson needed to prove to the state Department of Water Resources that he had enough water for Johnson Ranch. So he went on a buying spree of water wells in the area.

Five of the wells he needed were owned by the residents of a rural community called Sun Valley Farms V.

In May of 1998, Larry Quick, president of the Sun Valley homeowners association, signed a contract to sell the wells to Johnson for $30,000.

Quick made the move against advice from the association's attorneys, who suggested the wells should be assessed and sold using a bidding process.

Also, according to court documents filed in 1999, the association's board was never given a chance to review the contract.

The day after he signed the contract, Quick stepped down as president of the association.

Very odd behavior, residents thought. But the move made sense to them later -- after they'd dug into Quick's dealings with Johnson.

It turned out that three days before Quick signed the contract, Johnson had given Quick a $125,000 loan.

Quick said he didn't report the loan because he considered it personal business. Johnson said he had heard Quick needed a loan and he was just helping the guy out.

Quick later was hired as the planning director for the City of Florence, which is a few miles southeast of Johnson Ranch in Pinal County. He still serves in that position.

Quick did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.

The wells Quick sold for $30,000 were later assessed at $500,000.

Once he had wells, Johnson set out to consolidate control of the unconnected confederation of water systems in the area. If he could gain control of all aspects of supplying water to the area, he stood to make tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars.

He turned to Pinal County government for help. County supervisors awarded Johnson Utilities a 30-year contract to supply water, shutting out a competing water supplier that had raised concerns about Johnson.

The deal's lead supporter was Pinal County Manager Stanley Griffis.

Pinal County officials backed Johnson Utilities despite a sketchy track record that included 25 DEQ violations the previous year.

That year -- 1999 -- according to DEQ records, Johnson was cited for having "major deficiencies" in the drinking-water system he provided to the Johnson Ranch area, which, at the time, was serving more than a thousand homes and now serves about 4,000 homes.

According to DEQ, Johnson's company had failed to provide required water quality tests, failed to notify the state within 24 hours when tests showed contamination, operated a new well without approval and didn't submit a required emergency operations plan. Also, Johnson Utilities failed to notify residents that some water in the area was contaminated with coliform bacteria and high nitrate levels.

Johnson was ultimately fined $10,900 for the violations; the next year, DEQ announced the violations had been corrected.

On May 10 of that year, Johnson had to sign a consent agreement with DEQ that acknowledged that he failed to build the Johnson Ranch wastewater collection system to the specifications approved by the department.

In comparison, the other utility, Diversified Water, and its owner, Scott Gray, were well known for strict adherence to state environmental regulations in any work to be done in the area. Gray himself had led fights against wildcat subdivisions in the region because they often brought inadequate water systems into the area.

In an April hearing, Corporation Commissioner Marc Spitzer summed up what Johnson and Pinal County officials were attempting to do with the creation of the Skyline District:

"With respect to compliance with DEQ, the first reaction we get [from Johnson and Pinal officials] is, Well, maybe we can just have a Pinal County Board of Supervisors create and district and oust the commission's jurisdiction and resolve the issue that way," Spitzer said.

Griffis did not return phone calls about his relationship with Johnson. But records show Johnson is close to the Griffis family.

In 2002, Griffis' son, Jeff Griffis, went to work for Johnson Utilities as a cable technician.

And George Johnson gave Griffis' daughter, Michelle, a valuable piece of property.

According to a deed filed with the Pinal County Assessor, on October 31, 2002, George Johnson and his wife, Jana, turned over ownership of Lot 22 of Johnson Ranch Unit 1 to Michelle Griffis, Griffis' single daughter.

According to the deed and state law, the value of the property did not have to be recorded if the property is a gift.

Other similar lots in the development cost an average of $40,000.

The troubles around Johnson Ranch continue.

Last April, DEQ fined Johnson's company an unprecedented $80,000 for failing to receive approvals to build and operate a newly constructed water system to serve the Sun Valley Farms housing development near Johnson Ranch.

Johnson's water activities around Johnson Ranch also brought him a $90,000 fine from the state Department of Water Resources, the department's largest fine ever.

"They went out and drilled three illegal wells and began pumping without any groundwater rights at all," says Doug Dunham, manager of the department's Office of Assured and Adequate Water Supply. "And it was just odd. My guy went out there and saw these three little sheds and said, Hey, what are those?' And they were just like, Uh, we don't know.'"

Even now, the Department of Water Resources is still trying to figure out a massive discrepancy in Johnson's reports regarding water usage in the Johnson Ranch area.

Johnson is required by state law to recharge groundwater in the area -- he must put back as much water as he takes out.

Records show, though, that in the last three years, he's actually taken about 294 million more gallons than he's returned.

For each of the last three years, according to reports filed with the Department of Water Resources, Johnson's company has pulled 2,336 acre-feet of water from the aquifer beneath the area.

However, the company reported that it used only 2,061 acre-feet in records filed with the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District.

Johnson must pay the replenishment district for the amount of water he pulls from the aquifer. The district then buys water on the spot market for Johnson and pipes it to one of the water farms located throughout the Valley where it is released and allowed to seep back down into the aquifer.

The idea is that to save Arizona's already depleted groundwater, new developments must replenish the aquifers with water they purchase from somewhere else -- usually the Central Arizona Project canals leading into the Valley -- at the same rate they pull water out.

His underreporting to the replenishment district means that, at current water prices, Johnson's company underpaid the district an estimated $70,000.

But Dunham is more concerned that Johnson is depleting critical groundwater supplies when he promised he wouldn't.

"Our concern is that they're currently mining hundreds of millions of gallons of water without replenishing it to the aquifer," he says. "That's a clear violation. We must get that fixed as quickly as possible."

Again, Johnson's staff told state officials that the problems are simply more paperwork errors and minor oversights. They promise to fix everything.

But Steve Owens, the director of DEQ, isn't buying Johnson's litany of simple mistakes.

"Look, this is a large, sophisticated outfit," Owens tells New Times. "They ought to know better and they probably do know better what is expected of them under the state environmental laws.

"They've either chosen not to know, or to ignore those requirements. Either way, the activity is unacceptable."


When it comes to La Osa Ranch, the development near the air base, Brian Tompsett, Johnson's chief assistant and a vice president of Johnson International, insists that much of the damage in question was done not by La Osa Ranch but by the neighboring King Ranch.

"They accused us of something that the King Ranch did," says Tompsett, who accompanied his boss on the recent tour of the base.

The ownership issue is the basis of Johnson International's scathing nine-page response to DEQ's allegations.

Which leads to the obvious question: "Who owns the King Ranch?"

"I'm not sure," Tompsett tells New Times.

But five minutes later, when the same question is posed several times to George Johnson himself, he concedes: "It's owned by the Johnson Family Trust."

In fact, according to state Corporation Commission records, it's owned by the George H. Johnson Revocable Trust.

Which is just one of at least 20 George Johnson-controlled entities.

Still, Johnson insists, King Ranch and La Osa Ranch "are two separate entities with two separate roles. One is for ranching, one is for development. What one does has nothing to do with what the other one does."

Johnson blames a paperwork mistake for the DEQ violations that resulted in the record $80,000 fine.

"We didn't turn in all the right documents," he says. "It was the error of an engineer."

"You know, we didn't even pay that," Johnson adds. "The builders out there paid it for us."

That's a fact that has angered Arizona Corporation Commissioners.

"They didn't comply to begin with, and they don't have to pay the fine themselves," Commissioner Bill Mundell said in Corporation Commission hearings. "What is the downside for Johnson Utilities for noncompliance?"

What's even more irritating about Johnson's activities and violations in Pinal County, Steve Owens says, is that they mirror almost exactly Johnson's misdeeds up in Apache County, where Johnson had proposed a large resort and RV park along the endangered Little Colorado River in the heart of the White Mountains.

"It's all the same stuff," Owens says. ADEQ is still investigating violations on Johnson's property there.

But Johnson's dealings in Apache County do appear to be different in two aspects.

There, he walked into an already established ranching community that doesn't take too well to outsiders with grand schemes.

And up there, things got personal.


Originally, George Johnson called his planned resort on the Little Colorado River "The Four Seasons at South Fork."

The plan called for 500 recreational vehicle spaces and 200 vacation cabins in the first phase of development.

In 2002, the project's name was changed to The Villages at Valle Redondo. With the name change, Johnson's company offered local city and county officials numerous promises that his development would blend seamlessly with the surrounding environment.

In an October 2002 press release titled "WHAT WE WON'T DO," the company outlined its environmentally friendly plans:

"Where the development does include the Little Colorado River, Valle Redondo will seek to create a permanent conservation easement, where applicable, along the public areas of the Little Colorado. This area would be held in a continued public trust for the future benefit of all. There are numerous governmental agencies that will constantly inspect and monitor the development plans to ensure no such riparian destruction could ever take place. It's their job."

The press release was particularly humorous to area residents because of what Johnson had already done to the Little Colorado River.

One day in August of 2001, a DEQ inspector stationed in the White Mountains region happened to notice that the Little Colorado River, usually clear and pristine, was unusually dark and full of debris.

The inspector followed the debris in the small river up to its source, which the inspector determined to be drilling and clearing going on along the river on Johnson's property.

"Our guy just saw all kinds of debris in the watershed and tracked it upstream to the property," Owens says. "It was as simple as that."

Subsequent inspections led to Notices of Violations for four violations from DEQ for "point source discharge to a navigable water without an aquifer protection permit," changing "the color of surface water from natural background levels of color," "violation of a surface water quality standard" and "unlawful open burning."

At that time, the DEQ inspector and an Apache County health inspector observed drilling fluids flowing into the river over a series of berms apparently built to contain the fluids. The river was clearly darkened by the drilling oils. Also, the inspectors caught workers burning piles of willow branches without a permit. The branches had been cleared from the riparian area.

The scene led to more questions. Exactly what was Johnson doing along this river he'd promised to protect?

That question had actually been answered four months earlier when Clair Hale, the water commissioner for the region, toured the property himself.

In early 2002, Hale investigated accusations that Johnson was diverting water from the river to his property, according to documents in state Superior Court.

In February 2002, Hale observed that Johnson had indeed built dams along the river, barriers that were diverting water to a formerly dry pond on the property.

Hale told Johnson to stop the diversion until Johnson proved he held the rights to that water.

Court records show Johnson had no right to the water.

In March, Hale revisited the property. Johnson had failed to prove he had rights to any Little Colorado water, yet Hale found water was still being diverted into the pond in an amount he estimated at 10 acre-feet, according to court documents. (An acre-foot is the amount of water it takes to cover one acre to a depth of one foot.)

On March 20, Johnson was served with a cease-and-desist order directing that the water diversion stop and that the dams be destroyed immediately.

On March 22, Hale revisited the property to see if Johnson had complied with the court orders. But Mick Finch, Johnson's manager at the site, told Hale that George Johnson had ordered him to block Hale from accessing the river, the pond and the diversion dam.

Hale, in his 90s, is a storied figure in Apache County and, as the county's water commissioner, holds the sacrosanct position of protecting the county's limited water resources from abuse and theft. He also has the legal right to visit any stretch of the river any time he chooses.

So Johnson's refusal to grant Clair Hale access to the Little Colorado River was nothing short of scandalous in the Apache County ranching community.

Still, even from his blocked vantage point, Hale could clearly see that Johnson had not stopped pumping water from the Little Colorado.

On April 8, under the threat of a contempt-of-court order, Johnson finally agreed to breach the three dams he had built on the river and drain the pond.

But residents feared the town council of Eagar might still support Johnson's project, despite all the problems he'd caused along the river. They were particularly concerned because the town's vice mayor, Jack McCall, worked for Johnson.

Several conservation groups jumped in to help Johnson's neighbors. According to one rancher involved in trying to stop the development, more than 3,000 letters came in from around the country asking local and state officials to block Johnson' s project.

Local landowners and residents also hired an attorney and a private investigator who ultimately wrote an eight-page report to the Eagar Town Council documenting myriad reasons Johnson's development should not be allowed to move forward.

For Johnson's development plan to succeed, he needed to get the State Land Department to approve a change from agricultural to commercial status.

Alternatively, Johnson needed the Land Department to approve an annexation of the 1,200 acres by the town of Eagar. The Eagar Town Council had forwarded to the Land Department a request from Johnson for the annexation.

"You've got to understand our situation here," council member Vincente Ordoñez tells New Times. "We're a very poor community. We weren't necessarily supporting Johnson. We had a lot of concerns about what he was doing on the river. But we did want to see what the Land Department had to say about such a move."

Citing public outcry and the lack of specific information regarding Johnson's development, the state Land Department denied those requests last spring.

"To my knowledge, that plan is effectively dead," Ordoñez says. "All Johnson actually owns is 38 acres out there. The development is not going to happen."

Johnson did not take well to people standing in the way of his plans.

After neighbors refused to sell their land to him, Johnson bulldozed two deep trenches in an access road used by several nearby ranches. Sheriff's deputies came out and ordered Johnson to reopen the road.

Then, in a move that still baffles local residents, he placed several cages with farm animals inside along the road.

One of the animals was a pig. A sign on the pig's cage said: "Please Do Not Feed Wink."

Wink is the first name of one of the neighbors who didn't want to sell out to Johnson.

Johnson also put two burros, or jackasses, in pens along the road with signs saying: "Don't Feed Steve and Andrew."

Locals say the sign referred to the two Apache County sheriff's deputies who often were called to Johnson's property to settle disputes and present court orders.

"Yes, I saw all of those," says Councilman Ordoñez, who works for the U.S. Forest Service. "When I saw those things, I was just blown away. It was pretty juvenile. And you had to start asking yourself if this guy was actually playing with a full deck."

That's the same question people near Marana asked when Johnson brought his 5,000 goats to the border of the Ironwood Forest National Monument.


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.

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.

If the flight paths remained, homeowners in the development would be subjected to about 9,000 130-decibel low-level jet flyovers, which, according to one pilot, "make a rock concert sound like birds chirping."

The light from Johnson's estimated 175,000-resident city, a helicopter commander says, "would essentially blind our night-training equipment. And once you've blinded that equipment, you've basically begun a crash sequence."

Johnson's development would force the Army to fly its helicopters to another testing range about 20 minutes farther away. That would drive up the base's expenses by an estimated $8.2 million, which, according to one Army major, "would render us cost-ineffective" with the Department of Defense.

Even if the development isn't approved, Johnson still is facing a full-scale attack from scientists, environmentalists and those still smarting from his activities around Johnson Ranch and the Little Colorado River.

Indeed, local environmentalists and scientists have begun notifying national environmental justice organizations about the bizarre happenings at La Osa and other sites.

"We'll be meeting with other national groups to begin looking at a legal strategy with this," says Mike Smith, an attorney with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "There's no doubt we're all getting real interested in following this guy's activities."

As far as DEQ, Owens says, the investigations of the violations at La Osa will be combined with DEQ's continuing investigation of Johnson's activities along the Little Colorado River in Apache County.

"We will be combining all these outstanding matters into a comprehensive enforcement action," Owens tells New Times. "When we're finished, we'll turn it over to the Attorney General's Office for further enforcement action."

Dan Patterson of the Center for Biological Diversity says he and his staff plan to keep close track of the state's response to Johnson's activities.

"This stuff is so outrageous we'd like to see some criminal penalties applied," Patterson says.

E-mail robert.nelson@newtimes.com, or call 602-744-6549.

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