Monday, April 21, 2008

It's up to the voters

The Arizona Republic
Apr. 21, 2008

State trust-land reform's wobbly legs have a few more steps to travel.

With hopes of a legislative compromise fading faster than wildflowers in May, the advocates of preserving Arizona's most pristine landscapes have concluded an initiative is the only way to achieve their goal. They're preparing to collect 300,000 signatures to put the issue before voters in November.

They're looking at something less ambitious than Proposition 106, which narrowly failed two years ago, but more generous than the compromise bogged down in the Legislature. Let's hope they learned from past mistakes.

The first look is promising. This initiative is more narrowly tailored than the past attempt.

About 570,000 acres, including 5,000 acres in Scottsdale, would be set aside for immediate conservation. That's 120,000 fewer acres than in the 2006 initiative, but the land is spread into more places, including rapidly developing Pinal County, which should widen the initiative's appeal.

The proposal responds to critics in significant ways. Land set aside for conservation would remain in the state's hands rather than being given to cities or counties. Existing grazing leases would be honored, a provision that acknowledges the role ranchers played in defeating the previous effort.

As in the legislative compromise, communities would be able to buy land beyond the 570,000 acres at appraised value, without having to compete at auction against developers. The State Land Department would be able to keep a portion of auction proceeds to improve its planning and management of land.

It's a solid proposal, one that would end the uncertainty about whether some of the state's most gorgeous scenery will be paved over or saved for future generations. First, though, the proposal must win a majority of the vote.

Advocates two years ago made critical mistakes. The campaign focused on Phoenix and Tucson, ceding the rest of the state to the misinformation of the anti-preservation crowd. That's where they lost.

The wording in this initiative appears to recognize that error. It would set aside land for conservation across the state, near such places as Nogales, Douglas, Sierra Vista, Tombstone, Kingman, Lake Havasu City, Oracle, Winslow, Prescott and Wickenburg, as well as Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tucson and Flagstaff.

In the 2006 campaign, conservation advocates were slow and ineffective in responding to their opponents' charges. Home builders and ranchers more than likely will oppose the initiative again this year. Those who understand the value of trust-land reform need to be ready to respond.

Trust-land reform is vital. Preserving land for future generations is this generation's responsibility.

Just as important is giving the Land Department the tools to better manage the other 8.8 million acres of trust land. Some of the Valley's leapfrog development occurred because the department couldn't get trust land to market quickly enough.

The Legislature should have taken care of this. It failed. Now, it's up to Arizonans. The advocates of trust-land reform need to give them every reason to vote yes.

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