County plans $18.5M Altar Valley buy

County plans $18.5M Altar Valley buy

By Tony Davis
ARIZONA DAILY STAR, Wednesday 4-13-05

Pima County plans to close in mid-May on the $18.5 million purchase of about 9,500 acres of Altar Valley ranch land it will save as open space.

The move comes despite concerns raised by mineral explorers that the Rancho Seco property contains toxic levels of arsenic and mercury.

The county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to deliver a notice of intent to close the deal with the current owners, the Rowley family. The family has owned the property, adjoining Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, since 1951. The land is about 55 miles southwest of Tucson.

County officials, biologists and environmentalists said it’s important to buy the parcel. It contains habitat suitable for seven of 37 vulnerable species that the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan would protect, and it offers a key connecting area for wildlife moving from Southern Arizona to Mexico.

The purchase would also give the county development rights to another 478 acres, limit that area to 10 homes and give the county 30,000 acres of state and federal grazing leases.

If the deal goes through, the county will have:

Bought exactly 20,000 acres in 10 separate purchases using $44.5 million from the open-space bonds approved by voters last May.

Corralled the rights to another 78,000 acres of grazing leases.

In addition, county officials are negotiating with four other property owners to buy another 820 acres with open-space bond money.

But at Tuesday’s meeting, mineral explorer Glynn A. Burkhardt gave supervisors a spreadsheet of what he said were results of samples taken last fall and winter by a Canadian firm. The company did preliminary exploration in the Rancho Seco area before deciding not to try to mine for silver there. The results showed levels of arsenic and mercury exceeding those for which the state requires cleanups. The samples were taken from a large area including private and surrounding state and federal land, Burkhardt said.

"It is pretty obvious that what is being acquired by the county is a toxic waste area," said Burkhardt, who has exploration interests in neighboring state land and opposes the county purchase.

A separate, county-commissioned assessment of four sites on just the private land found no hazardous concentrations of mercury or tungsten, according to a memo from County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.

The county will check the test results from the private firm – Great Panther Resources of Vancouver, British Columbia – and try to confirm any tests that found hazardous levels on land the county plans to buy, said Nicole Fyffe, Huckelberry’s executive assistant.

Bob Archer, Great Panther’s CEO, confirmed that his company surveyed parts of the state, federal and private land.

If the new tests find anything hazardous, the county will ask the Rowley family to clean the metals up, since the sales contract calls on the seller to assume liability for hazardous conditions, Fyffe said.

"We could pull out of the deal if they decide not to clean it up. But right now we don’t think there’s anything to clean up," Fyffe said.

Board Chairwoman Sharon Bronson, a Democrat, said she knew of no potential liability that would cause her to rethink the purchase.

"Rancho Seco is a very important linchpin in the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan," she said.

Supervisor Ray Carroll, a Republican, said he’s willing to support acquisition as long as the county is held harmless from liability. But "if it turns out we are the deep pockets involved, I’ll begin to hedge,” he said.

9,500

Altar Valley acres

37

vulnerable species that the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan would protect

$44.5m

bought exactly 20,000 acres in 10 separate purchases using funds from the open-space bonds

Contact reporter Tony Davis at 807-7790 or tdavis@azstarnet .com.

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