Pima County's 14-year-old land-conservation project is poised to realize one of its main goals: protecting dozens of vulnerable species.

The county's Multi-Species Conservation Plan is in its eighth and possibly final draft, and moving toward federal approval. What's left is for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to hold public hearings and take written public comments on the plan, which aims to protect 44 vulnerable species, before deciding on it in about a year.

County officials hail this plan as a major improvement on others in cities such as Austin, San Diego and Las Vegas. In part, that's because it focuses more on saving large blocks of desert, grassland and riparian areas than on saving individual species.

They also point out that unlike most, if not all other habitat conservation plans, this one has acquired or leased most of the land it needs -106,000 out of 116,000 acres total - to assure that enough will be saved to offset impacts of development expected in unincorporated Pima County over the next 30 years.

Fish and Wildlife Service service officials are generally enthused about this plan, although they insist its approval is far from guaranteed. One question hanging for environmentalists, who generally like the plan, is whether there are enough assurances that the money will be there to monitor the health of the open space the county has bought. Developers are still concerned about what the plan might cost them, although they're clearly much more open to County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry's plan now than they were a decade ago.

"Sure, questions will be there, but I think the concepts are all there," said Scott Richardson, a supervisory wildlife biologist for the wildlife service in Tucson. "It's not a done deal for sure, but I think we're on the right track, and Pima County is on the right track."

'Choice' for builders

The county owns about 75,000 acres of open space that it can use as "credits" against future development over the next 30 years - if the plan is approved.

Under the plan, if a developer wants to grade unincorporated Pima County land in the future, the county can show that saving the conservation lands will compensate for the impacts, thus shielding the developer from additional requirements to protect imperiled species. If for any reason the developer doesn't want to be "covered" by the conservation plan, he can opt out, said Julia Fonseca, the county's environmental planning manager.

"One of the things we heard from the Tucson Association of Realtors, the Metropolitan Pima Alliance and the Southern Arizona Home Builders Associationwas that they wanted choice," Fonseca said.

Overall, the county's preserve system was designed in response to public and scientific input that it had to do more than preserve species, she said.

"You can establish a plan that preserves a species, but it doesn't mean you're preserving the habitat. Species move around," Fonseca said. "Their habitat is changing, especially with the climate changing, but due to other factors as well."

Another way this plan is innovative is that its monitoring will measure the health of the preserved landscapes, not just the individual species, she said.

Real estate questions

For the real estate community, this plan's biggest question is what are benefits and costs to landowners of being covered by the plan, said David Godlewski, president of the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association. Since the group prefers to have the most flexibility possible, the plan's objective to let landowners opt in or out "sounds positive, but the devil is in the details," he said.

The plan calls for a $3,000 fee on all developments covered by it to help pay the costs of administering it. Godlewski said he defers to individual members of his group about this issue, but noted that his group had been under the impression that all county taxpayers would pay for this plan, not a specific group.

"I think any costs associated with the MSCP (conservation plan) would be difficult at this time," he said. "While obviously things are getting better, any cost now is still difficult to absorb."

Carolyn Campbell, whose Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, formed in February 1998 to push for such a plan, considers this plan a big, impressive milestone, and a long time coming, a plan that tries to go way beyond the minimum required to meet the Endangered Species Act.

Still, a big question for her is whether the county has met a federal requirement to assure financing for this plan over 30 years, particularly for the monitoring, which will ultimately cost $1.2 million a year. The county has committed to getting that money from the general fund, but Campbell worries the current government can't guarantee that forever.

She also questions if it's OK for the county to put 31,000 acres it has leased for grazing from the State Land Department toward its conservation commitment. That 31,000 acres is about 25 percent of grazing leases it's acquired to go with 14 private land ranches it's bought since 1998.

"That's a hard concept for us to enthusiastically support," she said. "Mitigation (claims) should be for lands that are preserved in perpetuity."

Financing questions

Fish and Wildlife Service officials have shared some of Campbell's concerns, and still haven't sorted the issues out completely, Richardson said. But county officials have committed to replacing any of the leased state lands with other leased or purchased land for this plan in the event the land department opts to sell the leased land to a developer, which it often does to raise money for public schools, Richardson said.

Federal officials also have questions about the assurance of long-term financing - a requirement for these plans. But they've generally come to accept the principle that if a local government commits in writing to financing a plan over 30 or 50 years through it's general fund, that's adequate to get the permit approved, given the limitations on local government in assuring financing over a long term, he said.

"If the board votes in 10 years not to fund this plan, their permit gets revoked," Richardson said.

Contact reporter Tony Davis at tdavis@azstarnet.com or 806-7746.