County spent money to buy land but not care for it, so maintenance costs are piling up

2013-09-22T00:00:00Z 2013-09-22T19:24:01Z County spent money to buy land but not care for it, so maintenance costs are piling upBy Becky Pallack Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

You and a million of your neighbors got together years ago and bought some ranch lands to preserve the natural landscapes, wildlife and historical sites that make this area unique.

Your ranches are safe now from the threat of development. But your fence is broken, and you don’t have time or money to fix it.

Trash is piling up in places you wanted to protect.

Scarce water resources need to be improved to help wildlife.

And the costs of fixing up and repairing the county’s nearly 240,000 acres are growing fast.

Most of the county’s land and grazing rights were bought with voter-approved bond money intended for conservation. Monitoring and management are needed both to protect that investment and to meet the federal legal requirements of the conservation programs.

But the bond money can only be used to buy property, not to manage it. Competing budget priorities have slashed funds meant for routine monitoring in half over five years, said Kerry Baldwin, manager of the county’s Natural Resources department.

Money may not be available to replace signs or fences. A trail maintenance program was scrapped in favor of a sports park. And a rangeland staff position was vacant for more than a year before someone was hired recently.

“It makes headlines when you acquire a new piece of land, and that’s great, but the responsibility doesn’t end there,” said Brian Powell, program manager for the county’s Office of Sustainability and Conservation. “The leadership understands that. We’ve just been in a major downturn, so we’re hopeful that we’ll ramp back up and get the resources we need for those open-space areas.”

To do that, the county must find money to monitor ecology, maintain infrastructure and manage people and resources on the lands.

Ranchers who lease county land are required to keep an eye on security and maintain any wells and fences they use in their cattle operations. But they’re not expected to clean up after border crossers or make improvements for wildlife and recreation users, Baldwin said.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry says maintenance and monitoring expenses will come out of the general fund, although skeptics want to see a dedicated pot of money. The county also will need to win grants and partner with state and federal agencies.

Another option is to create a volunteer corps to do conservation projects. “People protect what they know and love and are invested in,” Powell said.

all types of users

During the real estate boom, land prices were rising quickly and ranches were attractive to developers, so there was a sense of urgency to buy and protect as much land as possible, said Thomas Sheridan, who has served on citizen advisory committees since 1997 and helped recommend purchases to the Board of Supervisors.

“The key was to keep these properties from getting developed,” Sheridan said. “Almost anything is better than that.”

During the recession, taxpayers got some great prices.

But there is a mishmash of uses and management on open-space lands. Ranchers, recreationists, smugglers and Border Patrol officers all use the same areas. You’re as likely to see cattle tracks as ATV tracks in a sandy wash.

“There are all kinds of stresses that we put on these lands, and somebody has to pay attention to that,” said George Ruyle, a University of Arizona range management professor who has served on citizen advisory committees for the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.

Often times it’s less about managing land than managing people, Sheridan said. Irresponsible people steal or shoot metal signs, leave gates open, dump trash, disrupt wildlife and cut new roads with off-highway vehicles.

All that has led to a long list of repair and improvement projects that need to get done, Baldwin said.

“We’re not able to do the preventative maintenance on wells and windmills. We have thousands of miles of barbed-wire fences around our ranches that are old and they need replacing. ... There are water holes that are silting in that are now no longer effective,” he said.

Old, collapsing mines need to be made safe, and bat-friendly gates need to be installed at cave entrances.

Additionally, responsible recreation users need better access to these public lands. Roads need to be maintained. Gates need to be replaced with cattle guards, and new trailheads need to be built.

There are 25 to 30 projects on a wish list just for the Tres Dedos ranches, county-owned properties near Amado.

On a recent morning after a monsoon rain, a trailhead at Tres Dedos was full of poppies, morning glories and young grasses that will be next year’s grazing opportunities. There were also four empty beer cans, a beer bottle, a soda can, a plastic water bottle, a baby wipe, a dental floss pick, a broken hotel pen and a chunk of scrap metal — just at the entry gate.

At a site where the county installed a wildlife watering hole near a well, a solar panel that powers a pump needs repairing; the cover blew off a water tank, and litter needs to be picked up. Projects like these will take a month or two to get to, Baldwin said.

At least seven other wells at this ranch could be converted to solar and improved to help wild animals.

Some projects are much more complex. An old adobe ranch house is crumbling. The building is being used by bats, bees, squirrels, pack rats and sometimes by desperate people.

MONITORING is essential

One challenge with conservation plans is keeping an eye on the results, said Carolyn Campbell, executive director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection.

“We can buy all the lands that we can and all the lands that we want,” she said, “but if we’re not out there checking to see if the species are doing OK and the habitat is functioning … then what do you do?”

The county isn’t doing a lot of that checking now. Officials have worked with ranchers to do annual inspections, and staff studied test plots in 2010 to gather baseline data on plants and animals, but they haven’t analyzed that data yet, Powell said.

Soon the county will be legally required to do more in-depth ecological monitoring.

To meet the requirements of the Endangered Species Act, the county has to get a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of its conservation program. The application includes a plan for monitoring certain species for 30 years.

The county has a plan but won’t implement it until it receives the permit. Federal agencies are reviewing Pima County’s application now, and Huckelberry said he expects the county will receive its permit in six months to a year.

“We’re kind of in a hurry-up-and-wait process,” he said.

Once it has permission, the county needs to invest in remote sensors, cameras, weather stations and animal tags to collect scientific data, Huckelberry said.

“The more we know about the land, monitoring the assets, the better they can be protected,” he said.

Plans call for things like counting plants and animals, checking water conditions and checking for non-native species.

“We will be going out there and counting tortoises and Pima pineapple cactus and cuckoos,” Powell said. “There’s a host of species we will be monitoring.”

HOW TO PAY FOR IT

Opinions about how to pay for monitoring and managing the lands vary widely.

The county’s Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation department, which is responsible for the work, proposed creating a Conservation Lands Management Program last year, but the request wasn’t funded.

The department asked for about $1 million a year for the first three years of the program. The proposal said ecological monitoring would cost about $220,000 a year and managing cultural resources would cost about $160,000 a year for the first three years.

Department leaders wanted the county to consider new developer fees and use permits to pay for the program. But Huckelberry said he doesn’t want new fees.

Open space benefits the whole economy, so it shouldn’t fall to developers to pay for it, he said. Besides, fees would be too expensive for developers and too legally challenging for the county, he said.

He wants the money to come from the county’s $460 million general fund. Monitoring will cost around $200,000-$600,000 a year, he said.

A previous county report estimated the annual cost at $990,000 a year, plus startup costs, but Huckelberry said that has been revised downward because improvements in technology have made monitoring less expensive.

He said the costs could be offset by new revenue from tourists who come to Pima County to visit the new public lands to learn about the Sonoran Desert.

The monitoring work will help identify special attributes of the lands, which could then be used to market the uniqueness of our area to these so-called ecotourists, he said.

He said future bond money could be used to pay for trailheads, parking and other improvements for “getting the public access to their lands.”

Ranchers’ contracts could include more ecological monitoring work in the future, too.

“Some people might think that’s the coyote guarding the chicken house, but there would have to be oversight,” Ruyle said.

Volunteers could help, too, Powell said.

Some want a dedicated fund to pay for the monitoring work.

Competition is high for general-fund dollars, Campbell said, and the Board of Supervisors must decide how to spend those dollars depending on the emergencies and political priorities of the time.

“Finding an assured funding source is a really important issue to us,” she said, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requires assured funding as part of the permit application.

Her coalition has proposed funding ideas including fees, an endowment, a local lottery, spending a portion of bed tax income.

Wherever the money comes from, its impact will be profound, Baldwin said.

“We’re making an investment that’s really going to pay off 30, 50, 100 years from now,” he said. “’cause they’re not going to make any more land. And it is our responsibility to make good decisions about land management today.”

Contact reporter Becky Pallack at bpallack@azstarnet.com or 573-4251. On Twitter @BeckyPallack

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Activate

Follow the Arizona Daily Star

Featured businesses

View more...

Deals, offers & events

View more...

Event Calendar

Today's events | Add an event

Most viewed:


Get weekly ads via e-mail