Urging Pima County to buy, protect open lands

Urging Pima County to buy, protect open lands
Published: 01.04.2007
Tucson Citizen

Scientists, environmental advocates and community members have long cherished the rich biological resources of Tucson’s Northwest Side.

The lush, old growth ironwood-saguaro forests also have made it a desirable place to live.

This area gained particular attention when the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl was listed as an endangered species in the late 1990s. This tiny owl, and the protection of its habitat, was the impetus for Pima County’s visionary Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.

Arizona is now the fastest growing state in the United States, with a population of more than 1 million in Pima County alone.

In response to the increasing population and loss of open space, Pima County has held two successful open space bond elections in the past decade to preserve habitat and add to its parks.

Both the 1997 and 2004 open space bonds specifically identified lands on the Northwest Side to acquire and funds were allocated for a number of these Sonoran Desert old-growth forest parcels.

To date, Pima County has yet to spend the balance of the 1997 open space bond funds allocated for the Northwest Side. While we wait, the purchasing power of our 1997 bond dollars continues to depreciate relative to land prices.

The bulk of our 2004 open space bond dollars have been used to purchase outlying ranches for $2,000 to $3,000 per acre. These have been tremendous acquisitions, especially because of their accompanying grazing leases, now held by the county, on large expanses of biologically important state lands.

Because of the county’s diligence and success in negotiating with these willing sellers, however, few opportunities remain to buy large private parcels.

Northwest Tucson in particular lacks large, privately-owned, undeveloped parcels of land. Virtually the only blocks larger than 40 acres anywhere in the Tortolita Fan are state trust lands.

But unless and until state trust land policies are reformed to allow for conservation, the State Land Department is mandated to maximize profit for the trust – they must sell for development, not conservation.

This leaves a mosaic of smaller, more expensive parcels to connect to the larger blocks of existing habitat to help maintain ecosystem function.

Can we achieve conservation on the Northwest Side without acquisition of these smaller, more isolated patches of high quality habitat? No, unfortunately we cannot, as our options are too limited.

With bond ordinance language forbidding condemnation, lack of willing sellers on many of the identified parcels, the failure of Proposition 106 to achieve state trust land reform, and the passage of Proposition 207 with its strong regulatory takings language, the county’s options to protect this area are few.

This makes conservation there both challenging and costly. For more than a decade, prices on the Northwest Side have been consistently higher than in other areas of Pima County.

But because of the remarkable diversity and significant habitat of this area, Pima County officials, on recommendations from conservation biologists and a citizens committee, specifically designated many of these smaller private parcels as "high priority" in the 2004 open space bond.

And the voters approved, fully understanding that not all biologically critical parcels are priced equally.

Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors has a unique opportunity to show its commitment to implementation of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan – and to the county’s Science Technical Advisory Team, wildlife biologists, the conservation community and Pima County voters – with the acquisition of more than 33 acres – from willing sellers – in this remarkable part of Pima County.

We urge the board to vote to protect these biologically important lands.

About the author
Carolyn Campbell is executive director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection.