Saguaro National Park has plans to expand, and willing sellers may make it happen

New bill in Congress, support from developer may spur action
2013-05-19T00:00:00Z 2014-07-15T17:49:22Z Saguaro National Park has plans to expand, and willing sellers may make it happenTony Davis Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 19, 2013 12:00 am  • 

The latest of several bills to expand Saguaro National Park has a new ally who supporters say should increase its chances of passage - the Tucson area's most prominent and politically potent developer.

Co-sponsored by three Arizona congressmen, including two from Tucson, the bill would add more than 2,100 acres to Saguaro National Park's East Unit and and nearly 375 acres to the park's West Unit. It has the support of environmental groups, Tucson's mayor, two Pima County supervisors, a leading business lobbying group - the Southern Arizona Leadership Council - and a respected University of Arizona biologist, William Shaw. The lands at stake include lush desert and a rare example of a flourishing riparian area.

But what sets this bill apart from three previous unsuccessful park-expansion bills is the presence of 1,374 acres of desert that has for more than 20 years been part of the planned Rocking K development, in the Rincon Valley adjoining the existing Saguaro Park East.

The project of up to 3,000 homes, a resort and a golf course was started by developer-investor Donald Diamond. Diamond, CEO of Diamond Ventures, and all other landowners whose parcels would go into the park are "willing sellers," several backers say.

Diamond's support is important because he is a longtime friend and supporter of Arizona Sen. John McCain, the state's senior senator, say U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, one of the bill's co-sponsors, and Kevin Dahl, Arizona program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. McCain's support is crucial because backers want this to be a bipartisan effort, and the bill's sponsors are all Democrats.

For now, McCain's stance isn't known. Numerous supporters said McCain had promised to introduce a companion bill. He is reviewing the bill Reps. Grijalva, Ron Barber and Ann Kirkpatrick introduced in the U.S. House on May 9, and Dahl said McCain staffers are coming here soon to visit the area.

McCain's office didn't comment on the bill in response to questions from the Star. Grijalva, a Tucson Democrat, said he's heard the senator has some concerns because the expansion would add to the total amount of public land. Luther Propst, former director of the Sonoran Institute, said he's heard from McCain's staffers that they want more support letters - which Propst is trying to round up - to make sure they don't hit unexpected opposition.

Other backers, including Dahl, say they're confident McCain will come around.

Overall, Grijalva and Barber say they're optimistic about the bill's chances given the high number of Democrats, who Barber said tend to be interested in the environment and public lands.

The harder part will be acquiring the land, Grijalva said, which can take a long time due to the difficulty in getting federal dollars. That's why land exchanges may happen, although Grijalva prefers buying the land because he thinks that gives the public a better deal.

"We're not taking any land away that should be used for other stuff," he said. "We've got landowners who are willing and wanting to sell."

Diamond changed

Chris Monson, a principal of Rocking K Development - a firm of which Diamond is vice president that is developing Rocking K - also sits on the council of the National Parks Conservation Association.

He says he's not sure if Diamond's friendship with McCain will be that big a factor in getting the senator on board, adding that McCain introduced similar legislation for a park expansion back in the 1990s.

"They had the same type of thing then as they do now. All the conservation groups were supporting it. You had the elected officials supporting it; McCain is very aware of the saguaros' value to our community," Monson said.

As for his company's turnaround on the park expansion, Monson noted that when the earlier expansion passed in the mid-1990s, his firm sold about 1,900 acres to the national park that had been part of the original Rocking K project.

Back then, the National Park Service and conservationists wanted this 1,374 acres added, but developers didn't want to sell. Propst, who has worked on Saguaro Park issues for more than two decades, said he talked to Diamond off and on over the years to try to change his mind.

Today, the housing development is still feasible. But with changing market conditions, a golf course and resort that had been planned for that area no longer work economically, Monson said.

"It's still a very strong area for residential and commercial, but there's been no new resort in the Tucson area for a long time," he said.

His company also is backing the park expansion for legacy reasons, Monson said. He said he's proud of his company's Rocking K planning effort, and adding to the national park will add to that legacy. "Our interface with the national park has been terrific - good for them and good for Rocking K," he said.

"Not bad views"

The Saguaro Park East expansion land lies near the end of Camino Loma Alta, a southeast-side road that dead-ends at a park trailhead. The expansion area includes ridges, rolling hills and washes, saguaro cacti that are starting to burst with white flowers, and an abundance of mesquite and palo verde trees.

"Boy, isn't this quiet nice?" Dahl asked last week as he stood by an overlook there. "All I'm hearing is the buzzing of flies and the cry of the white-winged dove." Looking west toward Kitt Peak in the Baboquivari Mountains and Cat Mountain in the Tucson Mountains, he added, "Not bad views, huh?"

Dahl's group and the Sonoran Institute convened a group of scientists and other experts last fall to set priorities for the east-side expansion. Their top priority is about three miles worth of Rincon Creek, lined with cottonwood, willow, sycamore, ash and Arizona walnut trees. Scientists have traced water from this creek into the central Tucson groundwater basin, making the creek and the surrounding Rincon Valley a fresh-water source for the city, said a report from the scientific experts.

The yellow-billed cuckoo, under consideration for federal protection as endangered, breeds along the creek. The endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher migrates through it, said Natasha Kline, a Saguaro National Park biologist. Black, zone-tailed and gray hawks breed or migrate there. Parts of the creek carry water most of the year, said Don Swann, another Saguaro Park biologist.

"This is an opportunity to add one of the biggest missing pieces in Saguaro National Park," said UA professor Shaw, one of the expert scientists who chose priority lands. "It's valuable first and foremost as a very rich riparian corridor. A nice bonus is that, as a result of the presence of water, the area is also very rich in archaeological sites."

County a Willing Seller

One willing seller for the Saguaro Park West expansion is Pima County, which owns 220 acres in the area, including the 160-acre Bloom property, which adjoins existing Saguaro West land near Camino del Cerro.

That parcel straddles hillsides and ridges and cuts through canyons, and is crammed with saguaros. County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said he would be happy to sell or exchange this land with the federal government for other federal lands.

The west side's next-largest expansion-area landholder, Thomas Wiewandt, wants to sell for the park's sake - and for his own. His 50-acre parcel connects the county's 880-acre Sweetwater Preserve to the north with national parkland to the south, and he sees his land as crucial for bobcat, deer, javelina and other wildlife roving between the preserves.

His house - which he would want to keep - covers 2,100 square feet. Most remaining land is thick with cacti, jojoba and other desert plants.

"This linkage is important for wildlife," said Wiewandt, a photographer and filmmaker. "Any parcel surrounded by development ends up being an island, and the biodiversity diminishes."

He is also concerned that he won't be able to keep paying his annual $22,000 to $23,000 property-tax bill, and that could force him to sell to a private party, he said.

"Now's the time for the government to buy these lands," he said. "In five years, the prices will be out of sight, and the owners will have to go in other directions."

lower price expected

When the 1,900 acres of Rocking K lands went on sale for the park expansion of the 1990s, they fetched $22 million for the developers.

That price triggered outrage among environmentalists, who thought Diamond was reaping more than the lands were worth, although the park service had done a formal appraisal.

This time, Huckelberry said he thinks the additional Rocking K land will bring in less per acre, due to a collapse in regional land values in recent years. Parks activist Dahl said he's seen the park service tighten up its appraisal system since the 1990s. Park service officials didn't return a call on that subject.

Grijalva said he's not concerned about the price for buying Rocking K land because he thinks that project has been a "pipe dream" since he was on the County Board of Supervisors from 1989 to 2002.

"The county hasn't rolled over and given them other zoning since then, and the zoning they do have hasn't been marketed or sold," Grijalva said.

Rocking K's Monson called questions about future purchase prices "a loaded question," since the feds' appraisals determine the land purchase price and it's not negotiated with the private landowner.

"They have a very structured appraisal process, and that's what it was before, as well," Monson said. "We didn't get what we wanted in the 1990s. It's a federally outlined appraisal process to protect the government and also to protect landowners."

On StarNet: Read more environmental news at azstarnet.com/environment

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

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

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