Trusted local news leader for Williams AZ and the Grand Canyon
Fri, Feb. 28

Land exchange getting closer<br>

Currently, the Yavapai Ranch holds thousands of acres of important forestland the U.S. Forest Service would prefer to manage. These lands, from which a portion is shown above, would supposedly be sold to development if the controversial Yavapai Land Exchange Act does not survive the Senate floor.

The act represents the largest such land swap in Arizona history in 50 years. In it, the owners of the ranch — retired physician Fred Ruskin and his family — hope to consolidate their nearly 100,000-acres, the ownership of which is checkerboarded with the U.S. Forest Service. In exchange for a large, privately-held amount of what many are calling “pristine forest lands” located south of Seligman, the Forest Service will convey some of its checkerboarded land to the Yavapai Ranch in addition to parcels in and around Flagstaff, Williams, and Camp Verde, that the Forest Service no longer wants to manage. The Forest Service will gain the much-wanted forestlands on the ranch as well as parcels identified as important for antelope runs.

Ruskin and his family propose to then sell — at appraisal value plus 15 percent — some of the traded parcels around Flagstaff and Williams to those municipalities, an act that would economically benefit the two. On the Camp Verde parcel, Ruskin plans to at least build a large shopping center.

Support for the exchange has been strong, except in Clarkdale, where 820 acres of the proposed exchange have been dropped from the list, and in Camp Verde, where a group originally led by Camp Verde council member Tony Gioia is in opposition due to fears about water usage and impact.

Citing that the Verde River and the amount of available water in the Camp Verde area is in danger of running dry, detractors would like to see the Camp Verde parcels dropped entirely from trade, or at least comprehensive studies proving that the area can handle the strain.

This, coupled with a large showing of concerned citizens at a December 2003 town hall meeting McCain attended, has given the senator pause in regards to allowing passage of the bill as it is.

For Ruskin, the 1,600-acre Camp Verde parcel must remain in the mix or the deal is no good. Originally a 2,200-2,400-acre piece — from which 600 acres have now been added to the top of the deletion schedule — Ruskin has planned to build a shopping center on the acreage from the start, and feels that the issue of water usage doesn’t pass the “sniff test.”

According to him, if the land exchange doesn’t go through as planned, 25,000 homes will be constructed on the existing ranch lands. A written development agreement for such is already in place. Since some of the ranch lies upon the watershed feeding the Verde River and Camp Verde, the impact of water usage for 25,000 homes — those at the Yavapai Ranch say — would be far greater than the impact of a shopping center further downstream.

In addition, water restrictions approved by the Salt River Project have been placed upon the Camp Verde parcel that are even stricter than what the Arizona Department of Water Resources itself would legally be able to impose. Ruskin argues that since Camp Verde is at the tail end of the watershed and water can’t run uphill, only water users downstream from the town will be affected.

Though the opposition group has produced a voice loud enough to slow down progress of the trade, the Camp Verde town council itself remains 6-1 in favor of the act with Gioia being the only one against. Camp Verde Mayor Mitch Dickinson agrees with Ruskin’s line of reasoning, and stresses the importance of a shopping center for revenue.

“Camp Verde has no retail shopping at all — you can’t buy a pair of shoes in Camp Verde,” Dickinson says. “We have increasing demand for services and we’ve worked really hard … providing a great amount of services for a little amount of money, but something’s got to give. We just are getting to the point where we have to have some additional revenue stream in order to supply to just the basic services to town.”

Dickinson added that even without development, effective, aggressive and progressive management of water resources can’t be done without revenue. He also speculates that much of the concern over the water issue is emotionally heightened because of the current drought situation.

The Camp Verde mayor also warned that if the Yavapai Ranch Land Exchange doesn’t happen, then the Yavapai-Apache nation is next in line and will try to secure the Camp Verde parcel for its own. Either way, Dickinson predicts, the land will be traded and development will occur.

Dickinson says that the relatively small group of detractors in Camp Verde — which he speculates are mainly retirees with little or no roots to the area — were successful in getting McCain to hold the trade up because they are very active in their campaigns to the senator.

“The people that this trade would benefit the most are working people with families,” Dickinson explains. “A lot of folks don’t have time to sit around on phones and e-mails and campaign these types of things like some of these retired folks have.”

Meanwhile, movement of the bill will probably remain slow. McCain’s legislative assistant, Heather Wicke, says that though the senator is aware of the benefits the exchange would bring to the communities involved, he is genuinely concerned about the Camp Verde water issue and feels it needs to be addressed.

To do so, McCain has added a second section, Tile II, to the bill. Labeled the Verde River Basin Partnership, it facilitates the formation of a committee with federal, state, and local representatives whose purpose will be to ensure that future development decisions in the Verde River basin — where the majority of land to be traded is located — are ecologically responsible. Many initially reacted badly upon news of Title II’s introduction, fearing federal involvement in what should only be a state or local issue.

Senator Kyl, however, feels that the bill’s current conservation easements provide enough water protection for the area. They stipulate that total water usage for the Camp Verde parcel must not exceed 700 acre-feet per year — allowing for only 400 more acre-feet per year as an existing private water company is already using about 300 acre-feet. Additional restrictions include the prohibition of golf course development, the use of only effluent water for greenbelts, and — except for water supplied by municipal or private companies — the forbiddance of water taken from wells perforated in the alluvium of the Verde River.

McCain and Kyl, according to Wicke, are in the process of hammering out their differences on the bill right now. Once that happens, the bill will go to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, of which Kyl is a member, for mark-up. The bill will then finally land on the Senate floor for vote.

Upon passage of the act, the USGA will conduct a 14-month expedited study of the Camp Verde and Verde River basin water issues, and will pass its findings on the Title II partnership, who will then have two months to issue recommendations for development.

This timeline will coincide with the 18-months it takes for the process of the land exchange to be complete.

Wicke says McCain would like to have the bill completed and passed by the end of the 2004 legislative session in October.

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