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Babbitt's Secret Growth-Control Plan

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...
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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.

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.

Last year, he pulled off a monster land exchange with the state of Utah and its conservative Republican governor, Mike Leavitt. The feds took 363,000 acres, including inholdings in national forests and the controversial Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. They gave Utah 145,000 acres of federal land to develop -- and $50 million to deposit in the state's schools trust.

In January, at Babbitt's urging, Clinton designated more than one million acres in the Arizona Strip as the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument and 71,000 acres along I-17 from Black Canyon City to Cordes Junction as the Agua Fria National Monument. Both new national monuments butt up against already protected national park or national forest land. Both designations also came over the objections of the governor, GOP congressmen and many state legislators.

Voters -- and politicians -- are all too aware that Arizona's wide open spaces are closing rapidly. "Open space" has become a catch phrase in all growth-management discussions, but it means different things to different groups. To environmentalists, open space means wildlife corridors and biological diversity, tracts of land large enough that critters can reproduce with other gene pools rather than fester in tiny islands of habitat that guarantee extinction.

To developers, open space means parks and golf courses and rock outcroppings that couldn't be developed anyway.

Babbitt's definition is closer to the first, Governor Hull's to the second.

As part of Growing Smarter Plus, Hull has crafted a ballot initiative asking the state's citizens to approve a 270,000-acre Arizona Conservation Reserve -- land to be taken out of the state land trust and preserved for posterity. One priority for lands deposited into the reserve is that they be landmarks -- she refers to them as "crown jewels. This is how 19th- and early 20th-century politicos established the National Park system, wrapping parks around what Babbitt has referred to in his speeches as "curiosities" such as geysers and canyons and sand dunes. Even Hull's choice of names harks back to another time: The national forests were originally called "reserves," and they were to be doled out and used up as needed.

"Isn't it time in this generation, with all these development schemes pressing in, to say, 'We've gone from curiosity to landscape?'" Babbitt told a Denver audience on February 17, the day after he met with Hull. "We can begin to think of an ecosystem and there's still time to protect that ecosystem.... Is it going to be a postage-stamp park, or wide-open public domain on which anything goes?..."

He asked the Denver crowd if such landscapes could be protected by legislation -- with state cooperation, that is -- or if they would have to be protected by presidential proclamation. He can just take it if he wants -- under existing federal statutes, such as those regarding federal antiquities and reclamation. It would require federal legislation, to be sure, and it would require compensation to the state for the taking.

But he needs to act quickly given the looming presidential election and the risk that Democrats will be ousted from the White House.

Woods and Babbitt came together in Chandler in January at a panel discussion set up by the Western Association of Resource Conservation and Development Councils and moderated by Prescott public-land-use lawyer Don Moon. Babbitt spoke last, and he brought up the possibility that the feds could help states protect open space through land exchanges.

Shortly afterward, Babbitt called Woods.

"He invited me on a little hike out at Perry Mesa and we started talking about that," Woods says.

They talked about the governor's plan, and Woods thought the governor's package looked better if Babbitt's acres were added in.

"Nobody knows Arizona and its resources better than Bruce Babbitt," Woods says. "He cares about the environment and he wants to make a deal. The state can cut a better deal than it will ever be able to do again. You've got an Arizonan as Secretary of the Interior who wants to do it. I'm not so sure he's necessarily going to drive that hard of a bargain."

Because the mere mention of Babbitt's name raises hackles in conservative Republican circles, it would serve him well to channel his proposal through a Republican like Woods.

Moon was asked to investigate legal methods of federalizing the lands. U.S. Representative Bob Stump is considering sponsoring the necessary federal legislation (though his staff refused to comment); such legislation would have to happen this spring, according to people working on the deal.

When Arizona became a state, its lands were cut into squares and doled out among state and federal and private interests in such a way that a land-use map literally resembles a checkerboard. Mike Taylor from BLM's Phoenix field office, which drew up maps following Babbitt's suggestions, describes the Babbitt proposal as "land tenure adjustments" -- attempts to clear up the messy management of checkerboard lands. The piecemeal dispersal of lands makes land-use management unwieldy. Former governor J. Fife Symington III and congressmen Stump and Jim Kolbe have all pushed legislation in the past that would have consolidated state and federal lands. Kolbe even proposed a federalization of the Empire-Cienega grasslands, an area Babbitt now wants to consolidate.

Closest to Phoenix, Babbitt has drawn a line from the Prescott National Forest almost to Carefree Highway. The line cuts diagonally across Lake Pleasant, ensuring that its northern and western shores will not be easily developed. It encompasses the Hassayampa River and Hell's Canyon Wildernesses, the dormant Castle Hot Springs resort and all the high Sonoran Desert canyons in between. More than half of the land within the boundary already belongs to BLM; 58,000 acres would be federalized.

When the Coronado National Forest was established, it was laid down in islands across southern and eastern Arizona. Babbitt's plan connects four of those islands and protects the rare grasslands that stretch south from I-10 toward Sonoita and Patagonia, an area already threatened by real estate sales. It would take 106,357 acres of state trust land there.

The third parcel locks up 27,000 acres of state trust land in pristine Aravaipa Canyon, plugging a gap in the landscape between BLM lands and a segment of the Coronado forest.

According to his maps, Babbitt proposes giving up 12,900 acres of BLM land near Wickenburg; 22,800 acres near Bullhead City; 32,000 acres near Florence and Oracle; 480 acres along I-15 near the Nevada border; 900 acres along I-15 near the Utah border; 3,400 mostly Colorado Riverfront acres in Yuma; and various small parcels in Tucson and Phoenix.

Babbitt doesn't want a fight, according to those working with him on the plan. The right wing in the state Legislature -- which has already issued a memorial condemning national monuments like those declared in January -- may see it as a federal land grab.

Mike Taylor of BLM doesn't think Babbitt plans to turn the lands he proposes to take over into national monuments, but merely set them aside as BLM lands, which could be grazed or mined but not developed for housing.

"It's a different level of protection -- if you want to call it protection," he says, "and a different level of management, too."

On a recent evening, Grant Woods sits in an office next to the KFYI studio where he does his talk radio show, reflecting on the political minefield that is growth management.

Woods took a visible stand when he joined forces with the Sierra Club and the Center for Law in the Public Interest on their Citizens' Growth Management Initiative.

"The way I look at it," he says, "in all probability, Arizona would not do much to manage growth or open space or any of our natural wonders out there.

"I could defend [the Sierra Club initiative] as opposed to nothing," he continues. "My view was I would rather put in something that was too tough and have to peel it back, because at least we would have stopped the degradation of Arizona. And in environmental issues, that's important, because there's no going back. Once something's developed, it's ruined, it's over."

Both the Citizens' Growth Management Initiative and Growing Smarter Plus are lengthy documents detailing how land would be developed and managed. Proponents of both insist that their plan provides the most public input.

At the center of the debate are CGMI's strict growth boundaries and impact fees. Every municipality with more than 2,500 residents would be required to project its growth over 10 years and draw a line that development could not cross. Developers would have to pay for roads and schools and sewers necessary to support residential and industrial developments within the growth boundaries.

The growth boundaries are seen as draconian by some, hiking up land prices inside the line while diminishing them on the outside.

Growing Smarter Plus suggests that municipalities set voluntary growth boundaries -- cast as a line beyond which they would not provide utilities. The measure leaves development fees up to the cities to charge if they wish.

That, Woods feels, "will do effectively what growth boundaries would do. Very few people are going to develop if they have to do everything themselves."

Woods had thought that Hull's original growth-control plan, 1998's Growing Smarter, would be impotent because it was backed strongly by developers. Woods expected Growing Smarter Plus to be more of the same and so he signed on to the Sierra Club's CGMI.

Hull's faction made overtures to Woods and the environmentalists. Growing Smarter Plus was greatly improved in the negotiation between the two camps.

Woods, along with Sandy Bahr and Rene Guillory from the Sierra Club and Jennifer Anderson from the Center for Law in the Public Interest, wangled a number of concessions from Hull's negotiators, which included Jack Pfister, chairman of Hull's Growing Smarter Commission, and developers. Among those concessions: allowing cities to charge development fees, assurance that cities would have to stick with their growth plans, setting designated growth areas, limiting annexation to what municipalities can realistically provide service for, and building in provisions for voter participation -- requiring a two-thirds majority vote before changing a plan and holding all changes until the end of the year so that they are considered as a package instead of piecemeal.

Woods appreciated the compromise; but his environmental associates were not impressed.

According to Anderson of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, the Hull contingent wanted to make Growing Smarter Plus just palatable enough so that the environmentalists would drop their initiative.

"They were trying to find out what we would agree to," says Anderson, "but we were not going to come to them and say, 'This is our bottom line and we'll compromise on this, this and this.' We have the initiative. We think the initiative is the best package for managing growth in Arizona, and we thought it was incumbent on them to come up with some proposals about how they can improve Growing Smarter."

Woods, on the other hand, was ready to deal.

"For whatever reasons, it was all or nothing [for environmentalists]; they're really wedded to the CGMI proposal," Woods says. "And to me, I didn't care at all whether it was this proposal or that proposal, or who's behind it, or who's in charge, or who gets the credit. What I want is to accomplish these goals and get it done."

On February 12, Citizens for Growth Management announced that Woods had suddenly defected and thrown his support to Hull's Growing Smarter Plus. Hull had certainly been wooing him, and in the end he had been negotiating more as a freelancer than as the head of an environmental consortium. But whether he jumped from one side to the other or got pushed is a matter of some argument.

Woods was on a ski trip to Colorado with his son, hammering out draft language with the governor's people over the telephone. He had his secretary call the Sierra Club to pass on a message that the governor was set to make an announcement.

Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club says the environmentalists blew the whistle on Woods' change of heart because Woods' secretary had said that Woods was taking Hull's side.

"It wasn't a done deal that I was going to," Woods insists. "They clearly jumped the gun." Bahr claims she and her colleagues tried in vain to reach Woods.

"We left messages all over the place for him," she says. Then she called the secretary back to make sure they got the story straight before issuing the press release.

"And by the way," Bahr points out, "he's still never called and talked to anyone [from the environmentalists' campaign]."

Woods considered all the plans on the table. The dealmaker-dealbreaker was Babbitt's plan.

"There's nothing in CGMI that preserves one inch of land," he says.

The 270,000 acres that Hull proposed for her conservation reserve was a scant 3 percent of the total nine million acres of state trust lands. But most of those nine million acres are in remote corners of the state that weren't at risk for development in the near future. It was a start.

But added to Babbitt's 200,000-acre proposal, it looked even better. And there were still other legal tools to continue adding to the open space bank.

For instance, the Growing Smarter Plus ballot initiative also would legalize land exchanges between governments, meaning that in the future Arizona could trade state trust lands in areas worth saving for federal lands worth developing.

In addition, the state can already purchase development rights on private property, a deed restriction that would forbid further development of those lands. Last year, for instance, the state parks department used Heritage Funds to purchase a conservation easement on the 22,000-acre San Rafael Ranch on the Mexican border south of Patagonia; last week the Nature Conservancy, which brokered the deal, sold the property to a rancher willing to operate the ranch under the terms of that easement. Growing Smarter Plus has provisions for purchasing development rights on other private properties, though it has not yet appropriated funds to do so.

Under the Growing Smarter Bill in 1998, voters dedicated $220 million as matching funds for municipalities that want to conserve open space by purchasing trust lands.

And then there is the Babbitt plan.

"The governor committed to me that she would seriously consider this with the secretary," Woods says. "They had a meeting. I talked with Bruce afterwards. I talked to the governor afterwards. They're putting staff on it. We'll see if we can move it to the fast track."

Contact Michael Kiefer at his online address: [email protected]

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