Sonoita Valley Planning Partnership

Posted: Jul 1, 2005

Southeast Arizona

Objective: To create a community-oriented forum for collaborative natural resource management that will protect the open spaces of the Sonoita Valley while allowing sustainable grazing and recreational use on public lands.

History: Sonoita Valley, just 50 miles southeast of Tucson, is a vast, high desert basin of oak-studded hills and rolling grasslands given lifeblood by the lush riparian corridor along Cienega Creek. The valley forms an important wildlife corridor connecting the Sonoran desert regions of the Southwest and northern Mexico. The valley is split nearly evenly between public and private land ownership, and traditionally supported ranching and mining. Recently rediscovered as a recreational paradise, the valley is now feeling the effects of Tucson's booming growth.

In the late 1960s, developers purchased the 50,000-acre Empire Ranch, alerting Sonoita residents that the open spaces they prized might soon be engulfed by the rapidly expanding Tucson metro area. Plans for a proposed "satellite city" fell through, however, and in the late 1980s, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) acquired 35,000 acres of the former ranch in exchange for scattered federal lands nearer Tucson.

The BLM subsequently began developing a management plan for its holdings in the valley, but the agency's top down planning process gained little local support. In 1995, the agency changed its approach and began offering local stakeholders an opportunity to participate. Later that year, the Sonoran Institute, a non-profit group that supports community stewardship efforts, facilitated a workshop at which federal, state, and local government officials agreed to form the Sonoita Valley Planning Partnership (SVPP) in order to promote community-wide participation in public land management.

Accomplishments: In contrast to the BLM's usual practice of limiting public participation, the SVPP was involved in every step of the land-use planning process for federal lands in the Sonoita Valley. Membership in the SVPP is open to everyone, and includes grazing and mining interests, conservation organizations, off-road vehicle users, and mountain bikers, as well as federal, state, and local agencies including the BLM, U. S. Forest Service, Natural Resource Conservation Service, U. S. Geological Survey, Arizona Game and Fish Department, Arizona State Land Department, and Arizona Department of Water Resources, as well as local county officials.

The collaborative approach initiated by the BLM and the SVPP culminated with formation of the adjunct Sonoita Crossroads Community Forum (SCFF), which brings together ranchers, land owners, business people, local environmental organizations, and interested local residents to consider management of the private lands in the Sonoita Valley. The result has been a comprehensive landscape-scale planning process covering the entire valley.

 Las Cienegas National Conservation Area
After three years of careful study and deliberation, a common vision for the landscape was developed. Work then began on a land-use management plan that met the goals laid out in the vision statement. During this process, the idea emerged of seeking designation of the valley as a National Conservation Area (NCA). In 2000, President Clinton signed a bill creating the 42,000-acre Las Cienegas National Conservation Area. The bill also established an Acquisition Planning District encompassing 100,000 acres of public, private, county, and state trust land surrounding the NCA. The management plan finally hammered out under the leadership of the SVPP includes both the NCA and the Planning District.

Since then, SVPP has also focused on development of a monitoring program for Las Cienegas National Conservation Area and Sonoita Valley Acquisition Planning District, and remains involved with complementary land-use planning and conservation efforts. The Record of Decision for Las Cienegas Resource Management Plan was signed by the BLM Arizona State Director on July 25, 2003.

The SVPP is currently exploring new organizational structures that allow it to be self-sustaining and play a more active role in helping the BLM implement its Resource Management Plan for Las Cienegas NCA. Three working groups have been formed to address organizational structure, natural resources and recreation. These working groups are open and anyone can join.

Challenges/constraints: Participants state that moving the plan off paper and onto the ground is the biggest challenge, and that continuing to fund staffing and monitoring will remain a pressing need. Conservation groups say they will be watching closely as the plan is implemented. The Center for Biological Diversity, which did not participate in the planning process, is concerned that the current plan does not adequately address grazing and off-road vehicle use. The group is currently taking a wait-and-see approach, but says it will not hesitate to litigate if its concerns are not met. BLM officials say that, as Tucson continues to grow, new and unforeseen pressures for recreational use will emerge.

For more information see:

Sonoran Institute
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