Land donated for conservation sold to mining company

2014-01-05T00:00:00Z Land donated for conservation sold to mining companyBy Tony Davis Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

In the end, money proved more important to the Reid Park Zoological Society than open land and a vision of reintroducing imperiled species.

Three years after getting a donation of 765 acres southwest of Tucson for land conservation, the nonprofit zoological society has sold it to a mining company, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold, for $3 million.

At the time he donated the land in late 2010, Gilbert Aguirre had said he wanted to “give something back” to the community after selling 5,000 nearby acres to a developer and “making a lot of money off the deal.” Aguirre, a native Tucsonan who grew up in the area that is now Green Valley/Sahuarita, is a California rancher and developer.

He now says he is disheartened and hurt to learn the land — desert dotted by creosote, cholla and prickly pear — is in the hands of the mining giant, and that it was sold without his knowledge. The land, part of the old Ruby Star Ranch, lies directly west of Sahuarita, with existing mine tailings and the Sierrita Mountains as a backdrop.

The society, which supports the city of Tucson-run Reid Park Zoo on an annual $1.2 million budget, concluded it wasn’t financially feasible to carry out its plans to introduce imperiled species to the parcel and run a conservation center there, said Nancy Schlegel, the society’s executive director.

Schlegel said the society had intended to discuss the sale with Aguirre, but didn’t in advance in part because there was nothing in the deed donating the land that required his approval. The sale closed in mid-November.

“We had developed several plans for how we could use the land. As we were exploring it, it became clear to us it wasn’t as suited as we would like for what we wanted to do, due to lack of water and the way the terrain was laid out,” Schlegel said last week. “We hadn’t any funding come through for it. We had this offer, and we decided that (selling it) was the best use.

“It’s desert property, surrounded on all sides by Freeport-owned land. It’s very near the mines in Sahuarita. I think it was the right decision for the time and place,” she said.

At the time he donated the land, Aguirre had said, “It would be an asset for the community to have a wildlife refuge there. This is going to enhance the area. It’s blighted by those mines and everything, and I think it’s going to help it.”

Aguirre, contacted Saturday at his office in Orange County, Calif., where he runs a 23,000-acre ranch that’s connected to a huge housing development, said, “I’m very disturbed. They gave me a song and dance about how they were working with the San Diego Zoo. The board came out ... and looked at the property and they talked about having a great breeding program for some of their animals.

“Then, all of a sudden, recently, the next thing I know is that I heard they had sold it to a mining company. I think as a common courtesy, they should have contacted me first and said we got the land under one pretense, and it didn’t work and at the least try to sell it to me. I would have bought it back.”

Schlegel said in reply that, in hindsight, it might have been best to at least notify Aguirre of the sale just after it was done.

But she added that it was an agent for Aguirre who had approached the society first, years ago.

“We’re very appreciative of the generous gift that Mr. Aguirre gave us,” Schlegel said. The money from the sale is “going to make a difference to the zoo for many years to come.”

Phoenix-based Freeport operates the Sierrita copper mine about three miles southwest of the ranch site. It owns and is considering reopening the long-closed Twin Buttes Mine site, lying southeast of and much closer to the ranch site.

Freeport released a brief statement Friday, saying the Ruby Star Ranch land will give the company “additional flexibility should the company integrate Twin Buttes with its existing Sierrita operation.”

The land purchase helps ensure the company will have enough space to keep mining operations going over the long term, Freeport said in an email to the Star.

Lee Allison, state geologist and director for the Arizona Geological Survey, said it would be “pure guesswork” to speculate what Freeport will do with the land.

“Use for waste rock or tailings? Buffer zone? Expand the mine? Develop a new deposit? Something else entirely?” Allison asked.

A Green Valley environmental activist, Nancy Freeman, criticized the society for selling the land intended for conservation. “They made $3 million profit when they did nothing there but talk about what they might do,” said Freeman, head of the Groundwater Awareness League.

Freeman expressed hope that Freeport will treat its new parcel with environmental respect. She noted that the company provided two new wells to the community after the Sierrita Mine tainted the groundwater with sulfates, and has proposed installing a new mine tailings impoundment that is lined to reduce the risk of contamination.

“Freeport is aware of the need for conservation of land and habitat in this area,” Freeman said.

Marshall Vest, a soon-to-be-retired University of Arizona economist and business researcher, said he had no problem with the society selling off the land, since there was no provision in the original donation deed requiring that the society use the land for conservation purposes.

“It was a gift, and I’m sure the developer benefited and got tax advantages from the gift,” said Vest, outgoing director of the UA’s Eller College of Management’s Economic and Business Research Center. “The society also benefits, from selling the land and using the resource.”

One who is happy at the sale to Freeport is John Gabriel, a nearby resident and a retired Merchant Marine chief engineer. Gabriel also was glad back in May 2010 when Freeport bought a neighboring 4,000-acre parcel, which was part of the same holding Aguirre had sold to its would-be developer. That Freeport purchase killed a plan for development of up to 15,000 homes there.

“We’ve got to do the mining. We need copper,” Gabriel said. “As far as I’ve seen, the mine and the previous owner of the mine, they’ve been good neighbors.”

Zoological society director Schlegel said she has no regrets about the decision to sell, saying, “We’ll continue our conservation work, but we’ll be doing it in different ways.”

But the society had what it described as grand visions for conservation of the land when it got the donation back in December 2010. Susan Basford, the zoo’s since-retired administrator, said then, “It is so rare for a zoo or zoological society to have this opportunity.”

Initially, the zoological society’s plan was to start by introducing desert-adapted species such as the Bolson tortoise, a Mexican relative of the desert tortoise that has lived in very small numbers in Arizona. Also considered for this ranch site was the endangered Sonoran pronghorn. Then, if those efforts proved successful, the plan was to consider introducing imperiled exotic species.

The society later concluded that the cost of such an effort would be fairly significant. While Schlegel couldn’t pinpoint the cost, she said “I’m sure” it would run into the millions of dollars.

Now the board is discussing how to spend the $3 million, “looking at the best way to benefit the zoo in the long term,” she said.

Other kinds of conservation activities are possible; the society and zoo are involved with conservation programs worldwide for turtles, elephants, tigers, polar bears and rhinos, the zoo website shows. Or the society could use the money to support ongoing zoo operations, Schlegel said.

The society administers the zoo’s daily ticket gate operations, runs educational programs there and carries out zoo capital projects, such as its new elephant and renovated brown bear exhibits.

“We should have an answer in the next month or so,” Schlegel said.

Contact reporter Tony Davis at tdavis@azstarnet.com or 806-7746. Follow Davis on Twitter@tonydavis987.

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

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