May 11, 2008

Pima buys land, lots of land


By Chuck Huckelberry
Special to the Arizona Daily Star

Four years ago this month, voters authorized Pima County to spend $164 million for lands that would receive special protection under the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. In that bond election of May 2004, more than 65 percent of those voting agreed that money dedicated to preserving native plants and animals would be money well spent.

The 2004 bond election was by no means the first time local citizens had authorized funds for open spaces. Voters in Tucson and Pima County have repeatedly used the ballot box to reaffirm their affection for their natural surroundings. Some examples:

● In 1974, when our population was 434,000 (slightly less than half what it is today), voters authorized $4.5 million in open space bonds, most of it to create Catalina State Park.

● In 1986, when the population was 630,560, 62 percent of voter approved $16.7 million for parks, open spaces and flood control, bonds used in part to create Colossal Cave and Tortolita Mountain Parks at the eastern and northern extremities of the metropolitan area.

● In 1997, when the population was 784,784, 68 percent of voters approved $36.3 million, in part to expand Tucson Mountain Park and to buy Canoa Ranch south of Sahuarita.

● And in 2004, when the population was just under 1 million, 65.7 percent of voters approved a whopping $174.3 million as the first stage in implementing the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan — probably the largest and most dramatic expression of local values to date.

So far, Pima County has spent roughly $73 million of the 2004 bond authorization to acquire six ranches that include nearly 26,000 acres of private (patented) land and more than 116,000 acres in grazing leases, in addition to smaller parcels known as "community open space" properties.

All of these purchases have been made under the watchful eye of the 11 citizens who form the Conservation Acquisition Commission. This commission has already recommended that in the next bond election the county ask voters to authorize additional bonds to buy land for open space.

The numbers — both the dollars spent and acres purchased — are important, of course, but they don't tell the whole story. The rest of the story must be read in the extent to which the numbers reflect the public will, how that will was translated into public policy, and ultimately how that policy was implemented and what it may mean to future generations.

From policy to plan

The Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, our manual for preserving and enhancing our unique landscape, was created in reaction to the announcement in 1997 that the federal government had placed the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl on the Endangered Species List.

That decision required that measures be taken to improve the habitat that might keep the animal from becoming extinct. Invariably, such measures lead to controversies over property rights because they tend to limit where and how land can be developed — exacerbated, in this case, by the fact that the federal government later decided the owl was not endangered.

Before the federal government reversed itself (something it may yet do again), the county turned to some 200 scientists for the best advice on how to protect the owl habitat and simultaneously stop the decline of 55 other native species. The science-based conservation plan that evolved also included participation from an 84-member citizen steering committee and numerous planning panels.

The depth of the debate that preceded adoption of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan in 2001 was unequaled in this region's history. Ranchers, real estate developers, a wide range of environmentalists as well as representatives of a dozen government agencies, remained intimately involved in the fate of 5.9 million acres in Pima County.

The policies that emerged were divided into five categories:

● Critical Habitat and Biological Corridors.

● Riparian (or streamside) Restoration.

● Mountain Parks.

● Historical and Cultural Preservation.

● Ranch Conservation.

Since 2001, these conservation concerns have gradually been expressed in the county's Comprehensive Plan, a document mandated by Arizona law, and more visibly in the huge tracts set aside as part of the Pima County Conservation Land System. The Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan provides the scientific rationale for deciding what ought to be protected as part of the Conservation Land System.

The Comprehensive Plan is the document that county zoning officials look to for guidance when developers apply for a rezoning. As an example, if a company buys 10,000 acres already zoned for low density and wants to change that to high density, it would be required to abide by the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, which mandates that 80 percent of the 10,000 acres be set aside as open space.

Land planning tool

Though the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan is a separate entity from the Comprehensive Plan, in a practical sense the two documents are as closely related as interlaced fingers.

Most people familiar with the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan think of it mainly as a way to protect plants and animals and preserve open spaces.

It is that.

But as the adjacent map showing land acquisitions made since 2004 illustrates, the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan is also a regional land use tool, the mechanism that defines our region's urban edge (what other cities refer to as an urban growth boundary).

In that sense, it is the first major commitment that our area has made toward creating a regional land use plan.

Most of the acreage purchased with the 2004 bonds goes into the Conservation Land System to protect entire ecosystems (not merely a park here or there). This approach enhances biological diversity, minimizes the spread of exotic or invasive species and adds to the number of acres that remain roadless.

This means that those who live here 50 years from now will still have access to the natural amenities we enjoy today.

A lot of words have been written lately about the need for regional planning. The accompanying map shows that Pima County, with the help of voters who approved the 2004 bonds, has already taken a giant step in that direction by creating land use patterns that will preserve the best of our natural landscape, history and culture far into the future.

The Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan was a first for Arizona and, as several books and magazine articles have noted, it has since emerged as a model for conservation planning throughout the nation.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors has taken the first giant step in creating a sustainable Arizona future. We invite everyone to join us.