August 14, 2008

Ranchers, environmentalists show support for initiative

By Jaime Richardson
Green Valley News

George Monzingo, left, who runs a cattle ranch between Tombstone and St. David, talks to Sonoita rancher Mac Donaldson. Donaldson organized a meeting at Empire Ranch Tuesday to discuss a proposed State Trust land initiative that will affect those leasing in Pima and Santa Cruz counties. At right are Dennis and Deb Moroney, who raise cattle in McNeil, Ariz. (Jaime Richardson Green Valley News)

Area ranchers met with environmentalists in Sonoita on Tuesday to discuss a proposed measure that would set aside 570,000 acres of State Trust land for conservation.

About 30 supporters of Proposition 103: the Our Lands, Our Schools Initiative, gathered on a cloudy day at the sprawling Empire Ranch in Sonoita, a rural community about 40 miles southeast of Green Valley.

The historic ranch sits at the heart of the 42,000-acre Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, on public lands acquired and administered since 1988 by the Bureau of Land Management. Ranching there continues under a grazing permit held by John Donaldson and his son Mac, of Sonoita.

“In 150 years, what will our great-grandchildren have here in Arizona?” said Mac Donaldson, who helped organize Tuesday's gathering. “Will they have more Phoenix, more Mesa? Or will they be able to have something like this?”

A similar initiative, Proposition 105, the State Trust Lands Act, failed to make the ballot in 2006.

The main purpose of Our Lands, Our Schools, would be to set aside 570,000 of the state's 9.3 million acres of State Trust land for conservation, explained Patrick Graham, state director of the Nature Conservancy and chair of the initiative committee. This would ensure that those acres could never be sold for development, he said.

Existing leases and rights-of-way would not be affected, and would continue to generate revenue for the trust.

The more than half-a-million acres were selected based on their ecological significance and proximity to state and federal parks and wildlife management areas. This would include 50,135 acres in the Santa Rita Experimental Range, 2,073 acres in the West Desert Preserve, 30,172 acres in the Sahuarita Mountains, 8,768 acres in the Santa Cruz Wildlife Corridor, and 3,072 acres adjacent to Patagonia Lake State Park.

About 85 percent of State Trust lands are leased for grazing, but there is an increasing pressure to sell that land to developers, said Graham.

“These lands are increasingly being converted into subdivisions,” he said. “This initiative is a unique opportunity for landowners, conservationists, the business community and educators to form a coalition and try to do something for Arizona that will benefit us for the next century.”

Some of the money from the sale of State Trust lands goes to public schools in Arizona.

The Arizona Education Association supports the initiative, but much of the education community is split, says Patrick Bray, deputy director of government affairs for the Phoenix-based Arizona Cattlemen's Association, who voted to take an official stance against the initiative. One reason for their decision is their belief that the initiative will hurt funding for public schools.

“We're in favor of the mission of the trust, which is the highest and best possible use of the land,” said Bray. He said that State Trust land is not public land, and should not be treated as such. “There’s no reason that 570,000 acres should be set aside and not paid for. If so, the trust should be compensated somehow.”

The Cattlemen's Association is run by a 25-member board made up of representatives from every county in Arizona. Bray said it took members around 60 days to come up with their decision, which they didn’t take lightly.

“When a trust owns those lands, and you have to answer to 12 beneficiaries (one of which is the Arizona public school system), you should pay for those lands,” said Bray.

But Graham says the schools will still get revenue from the conservation lands.

“Those people in the education community that have taken the time to understand that the trust is not harmed by this measure are very supportive of it,” he said.

A representative from the office of Gov. Janet Napolitano who attended the meeting said the governor is in support of the initiative. U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords sent a spokesperson to collect information, though Democrat Giffords has yet to reveal her positions on any of the initiatives up for ballot.

Joining those representing the Nature Conservancy, Cienega Watershed Partnership and Sonoran Institute were ranchers from throughout Santa Cruz and Pima counties, from as far north as Aravaipa Canyon, about 50 miles northeast of Tucson. Many of the ranchers have lands that would be included in the 570,000 acres. Others came just to bring back information to share with their neighbors and fellow cattlemen.

“Many ranchers and environmentalists have the same goals, so why not work together, instead of against one another?” said Mac Donaldson.

“I have a long-term concern for the health of our state — that's why I’m supporting this. And I’m attempting to show that there are grazers here who support it, and have some sense of what the future can bring both for us and for Arizona.”