Thursday, February 28, 2008

Homes may overtake old ranch

By Lourdes Medrano

Back in the early 1970s, when Arizona rancher Don Martin chose to run cattle in northern Pima County, the chances of being squeezed out of business one day seemed remote.
That day now looms.
The Arizona State Land Department recently announced plans for a 15,900-home development on land that includes the area where Martin's cows graze around his Rail X Ranch.
Martin is the only rancher who would be directly affected by the 9,100-acre proposed Arroyo Grande. But the plan, which also includes commercial development, has prompted strong opposition from residents of neighboring Catalina.
Martin is philosophical about the development plan.
"I can't do anything about it. If it's going to happen, it's going to happen," he said, sounding resigned.
Martin owns some private land in the area, he said. But he leases most of it — nearly 26,000 acres of state trust land — for a ranching operation that straddles the Pima-Pinal county line.
The State Land Department's proposed development of Arroyo Grande would make way for about 38,000 residents next to unincorporated Catalina, where about 8,900 people live. Just south, Oro Valley is working to annex the state land before it is developed.
Development gobbles up ranches
Vague talk of new housing in the area goes back several years, Martin said. But specific plans, with numbers attached, are new to him.
Still, word of the 14-square-mile development holds little surprise. Urban growth already has gobbled up big chunks of his other ranch land southeast of Tucson.
"They're all close to town, that's where all this kind of development is occurring," Martin said. "It doesn't happen way out in the country."
Ranching near cities and towns has advantages and disadvantages, Martin said: Ranchers have no trouble selling land that is in high demand, but encroachment can displace ranchers prematurely.
State trust land is part of the roughly 10 million acres that Arizona received from the federal government when it became a state in 1912. Most of the proceeds of sales or grazing leases benefit public schools.
Deputy State Land Commissioner Jamie Hogue said that of the remaining 9.2 acres, about 8 million are held in grazing leases that generated $2.5 million in revenue last year.
"We have a vast amount of land in the remote areas," she said.
Her office keeps a close watch on grazing leases such as Martin's, which are near cities or towns, because of the potential for development. In most cases, Hogue said, ranchers can hold on to their leases until development is imminent.
Grazing lease can be canceled
Like other ranchers, Martin has a 10-year grazing lease the state can cancel at any time. Such leases also can be converted into special land-use permits that allow grazing on a temporary basis, Hogue said.
The rancher's lease, which expires in 2015, also could be amended, she said. Doing so would exclude some of the land closer to North Oracle Road, which is slated for development, and allow Martin to keep some of the land.
Hogue emphasized that it will be some years before new houses are built.
"By 2015, I can say a portion in the Arroyo Grande could still be part of his grazing lease," she said, referring to Martin.
The rancher figures a worst-case scenario might still allow him to keep slightly more than half of the state land for grazing, most of it in Pinal County.
But he said it might not be cost- effective to keep operating at diminished capacity.
"All the expenses would still have to be paid, but the income would be cut in half," he said.
The rancher said he tries not to waste time worrying about the possible demise of the Rail X Ranch.
When the time comes, he'll be prepared to leave the land, he said.
For now, he just keeps working.
Taking land, ruining wildlife
Imposing and slender at 82, Martin still has a hand in his ranching businesses.
At the Rail X Ranch, he leaves most of the management to his sons, Scott and Matt.
Scott Martin is not thrilled about the proposed development — and not just because of the impact to his family's livelihood.
"We have other ranching interests, so that's not going to stop our way of life, even if it does happen," he said of Arroyo Grande.
"But this development is a big mistake. It's jumping the gun. It's taking all the land and ruining the wildlife."
At the Rail X, longtime ranch hand Richard Ellis continues to take care of the day-to-day duties.
Ellis, 64, lives with his wife, Glenda, in one of two small ranch houses next to the main house, an old adobe with additions that remain empty. Martin's daughter, Jennifer King, and her family were the last to live in it.
Ellis, with help from another part-time worker, looks after the cattle and maintains the property.
He and his wife like the still-mostly-tranquil ranch, Ellis said, but they have noticed the demographic changes taking place around the Rail X since they moved in 18 years ago.
Fencing and dense vegetation separate the ranch from North Oracle Road. From their vantage point, Ellis and his wife can spy houses that have sprouted nearby in the last few years.
"There's not much you can do about it," Ellis said. "Progress is moving in all around us."
Progress has meant having to share the state land with more people. Ellis said some, like riders of all-terrain vehicles and target shooters, can pose problems.
Martin's cattle for now still roam freely on desert land studded with cholla and mesquite trees, the silence occasionally punctured by the roar of an engine.

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