Green groups, military interests promote Ariz. conservation plan

Posted: Nov 14, 2012

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White Tank Mountains

A proposal backed by environmental groups and military interests in southern Arizona would protect hundreds of thousands of acres -- as well as large swaths of the airspace above them.

The "Sonoran Desert Heritage Proposal," which supporters are crafting with the hope of seeing it introduced in Congress early next year, would create new national conservation areas and wilderness on about 700,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land northwest of Phoenix, near the White Tank Mountains.

Supporters of the plan shared economic and defense data at a meeting Friday with community leaders and emphasized the need for conservation as development continues to sprawl west of Phoenix. At the same time, advocates of the proposal noted the Luke Air Force Base's need for land below its training airspace to remain open to ensure safety and avoid conflicts with communities.

A sense of urgency underlies the proposal, which is the subject of a new episode of the PBS series "This American Land," as the economy -- and the housing market -- begins to recover and new solar projects go up, said Dave Richins, policy director with the Sonoran Institute, which helped craft the proposal.

"Development has pushed out into the desert," he said. "Nobody thought anything but power lines and a few farms would be out here, but a lot of projects have occurred in the past few years. We need to make sure the best habitat gets protected."

The area, part of the Sonoran Desert region, is home to ring-tailed cats, javelina, endangered bighorn sheep and the threatened Sonoran Desert tortoise.

While lands included in the proposal are already under federal jurisdiction, the added designations as a national-conservation and wilderness area will prevent BLM from marking the lands for "disposal," which could lead to their development, Richins added.

"We want to make sure none of this is on disposal list," he said. "That's what happens when development comes out into the area, they started listing lands for disposal."

The Luke Air Force Base abuts many of the lands proposed for protection in the West Valley, and the Barry M. Goldwater Range, the Yuma Proving Ground and other military facilities are in the same general area.

Ron Sites, executive director of the Fighter Country Partnership, which represents the military personnel at Luke Air Force Base, said the proposal makes sense for military readiness.

"It's very easy for us to support this project," Sites said. "Whatever preserves the ground protects the airspace, which further protects Luke's mission now and in the future for the F-16 and the F-35 [fighter jets]. It's an awesome collaboration, and we really like it."

The environmental groups came up with the idea of reaching out to the military while they were surveying the lands and deciding which ones to include in the proposal, Richins said.

"When the F-35 was rumored to come to Arizona and we were working on this, a light went off," Richins said. "We looked at the flight corridor for the F-35, we looked at the [nearby] Barry M. Goldwater Range and Yuma Proving Grounds, and we started seeing this nexus as we were groundtruthing the wilderness areas. A few times when we were out there, jets were flying over. We realized we could protect what they're flying over."

About 75 percent of the lands environmental groups had targeted for protection under the proposal overlapped with military airspace, he added.

Bases aid in species protection

Protecting habitat and native species on public lands near the bases also buffers them against ending up as the last remnants of habitat for federally listed species like desert bighorn sheep and the Sonoran Desert tortoise. If that were to happen, military officials could be required to curtail training activities or come up with alternative testing areas.

Military installations in Arizona contribute about $9 billion a year to the state's economy and provide more than 96,000 jobs, according to a joint release issued by the groups supporting the proposal.

The Sonoran Desert Heritage Proposal dovetails with the Department of Defense Readiness and Environmental Protection Initiative, which aims to protect natural habitat on lands surrounding Department of Defense lands to lessen the likelihood of on-base habitat restrictions and preserve open space for surrounding communities.

According to its 2012 report to Congress, from the program's inception in 2006 through fiscal 2011, the Pentagon preserved a total of 215,000 acres of non-DOD lands in 24 states at a cost of $633 million.

"The Sonoran Desert Heritage conservation plan is a no-cost conservation easement for our military installations, connecting irreplaceable wildlife habitat and migration corridors, and giving the gift of protected open space to future generations of Arizonans," said Les Corey, executive director of the Arizona Wilderness Coalition, one of the groups pushing the proposal. "This is a pragmatic, fiscally prudent option for preserving Arizona's economy and natural legacy, and we look forward to working with Congress to make it a reality."

Diane Brossart, president and CEO of the Valley Forward Association, an environmental group based in the West Valley area, said elevating the level of protection for the lands will attract more visitors.

"Protecting public lands in the West Valley will help produce much-needed jobs and revenue in our region, where people come to take in the spectacular scenery, wildlife and one-of-a-kind cultural history," she said, adding that outdoor recreation generates $5 billion in sales and associated retail revenues to the state.

Supporters have been working for more than a year to teach people about the proposal and get buy-in from the military bases, local businesses and residents, hunters, off-roaders and elected officials, Richins said.

The effort reflects a recent trend in securing broad local support before floating a proposal in Congress, which has proved to help increase a bill's likelihood of passing.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D), one of two representatives whose districts encompass the lands, has thrown his support behind the measure. The other, Rep. Paul Gosar (R), is still mulling over the proposal.

Some prefer state ownership

Last fall, proponents hosted five public meetings on the proposal across the West Valley and have tweaked the plan to incorporate the suggestions and concerns of various groups, Richins said.

"We're doing this with people, not to people," he said. "That's not to say it won't have its critics. I'm sure it will."

There are some Arizonans who are of the mindset that federal lands should be transferred to state ownership, for example. In fact, voters in last week's election had the opportunity to decide whether the state would be allowed to seek ownership of federal lands in the state, including the Grand Canyon, under a ballot measure proposed by state legislators (Greenwire, Oct. 24).

Arizona voters handily rejected the measure, known as Proposition 120, by a 2-to-1 margin.

"I think those are folks who are just against federal ownership of lands, but there's nothing we can do to make up for that," Richins said.

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