Nature Noted

Notes on a changing Nature

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Location: Bellville, Texas, United States

I never would have predicted this one

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Saving Arizona

When the West was young, land was cheap. That was one of the great things about the West. Now that the West is filling up, land is the new gold, the new oil, the new hot commodity. And the new land rush is having some interesting repercussions.
First in Arizona. When Arizona became a state, the federal government gave the state over 9 million acres. That property is called Trust Land. Trust land is supposed to be sold to the highest bidder, with the proceeds going to fund state education. But as this week's High Country News points out, drought and runaway growth are threatening to undermine Arizona's future. That why land trust (as opposed to trust land) advocates are fighting to make sure that as the state sells off the trust land, some of it is set aside as conservation areas. But the problem is, how much? The Arizona Capitol Times reports that after a stalemate in the legislature, there is some movement toward resolving the issue.
"(Sen. Jake) Flake says the chief hang-up is conservation land.“The deal breaker has been the amount of conservation land to set aside,” he told Arizona Capitol Times in a March 15 interview. “If we could just come out with some reasonable requests from the conservationists, the environmentalists, on the amount of conservation land.”
Mr. Flake said the Legislature designated 44,000 acres for preservation in the Phoenix and Tucson areas. “Forty-four-thousand acres isn’t a small amount,” he said. “If you were develop that 44,000 acres, we’d be taking in $10-15 billion.”
Key elements of the original package would have included setting aside approximately 700,000 acres for conservation as open space either without compensation for the trust or at discount prices and giving the Land Department new powers to plan and dispose of land.
Pat Graham, Nature Conservancy state director, said conservation of environmentally sensitive rural lands couldn’t be ignored while steps are taken to bolster the Land Department’s planning and sales processes.

If the legislature can't come to a deal, Governor Janet Napolitano is pushing to put the issue to a statewide referendum.
In Nevada, the sale of similar land has become so valuable, that the Federal Government wants a big piece of the action.
A free article in High Country News shows how the sale of land that is supposed to raise funds for conservation could be used to lower the federal deficit.
Congress originally passed the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act in 1998, to help accommodate rapid growth in Clark County. The law allowed the BLM to auction off some of its lands around Las Vegas. The proceeds were to be spent on local water infrastructure, recreation and conservation projects, and on educational programs and land-conservation initiatives throughout the state. There’s a lot of money coming in: Since the law was enacted, its land auctions have generated almost $2 billion. The latest sale, held in February, netted more than $602 million. Currently, all the proceeds remain in Nevada. But now, President Bush wants to use part of the windfall to help pay down the ballooning federal deficit. The president’s 2006 federal budget lists his new plan as a "mandatory proposal" that would divert 70 percent of the Nevada land-sale profits into the national treasury. "The land sales have gone way beyond our expectations," says John Wright, a Department of Interior spokesman. "Redirecting a portion of the revenue won’t interfere with the intention of the law. There is plenty of money to go around and still meet the requirements of the act." Eighty-five percent of the money is currently set aside to build parks and trails, and to acquire environmentally sensitive lands, such as breeding grounds for the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher, and critical habitat for endangered pupfish and speckled dace. The act also funds the Clark County Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan, along with projects to improve the clarity of Lake Tahoe. The state education fund receives 5 percent of the revenue, and the final 10 percent goes to the Southern Nevada Water Authority for infrastructure improvements
Paying down the national debt and funding public education are both worthy goals. But you have to wonder if the people of Arizona and Nevada are going to someday look back at the time they had a chance to preserve wild lands, and think that maybe their state and national leaders chose the quick fix instead of their long term futures.

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