Almost three years after Spur Cross Ranch was purchased to keep it undeveloped, the 2,150-acre preserve in Cave Creek has yet to be opened to full public use.
The gatekeepers of the land say the wait is needed to keep from losing what preservationists fought to save, and to protect the investment taxpayers are funding.
“We have to strike that delicate balance between recreation and conservation,” said Richard Knox, a manager for URS Corp., the architecture and engineering company scripting the Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area master plan.
Proposals for how to offer a playground for hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians while protecting a fragile ecosystem and historic sites will be on display Thursday at an open house.
The intent is to open the area to all comers, but that will require some rules, said John Gunn, Spur Cross supervisor.
For starters, it will mean staying on official trails and designating some trails off-limits to cyclists and horse riders, as well as closing trails when weather or other factors make terrain prone to erosion. Access to some trails may be reserved only for guided hikes.
The restrictions will be critical to protecting what Knox describes as a treasure trove of natural resources. Spur Cross is among the richest of the few remaining upper Sonoran Desert riparian plant and wildlife habitats, the only one in the Valley with a running stream year-round.
It's also strewn with archaeologically significant remnants of the ancient Hohokam civilization that once ruled the Valley, as well as artifacts of the more recent history of early American settlement.
Those features helped a grass-roots preservation movement persuade then-Gov. Jane Hull and other government leaders to push for funds to acquire Spur Cross from private owners.
In January 2001, the state and Maricopa County contributed a combined $15 million to the purchase. Cave Creek chipped in $6.3 million through a bond backed by the town's first property tax.
The Town Council also approved a half-cent sales tax increase to fund preserve operations.
“The community has taken both fiscal and emotional ownership of Spur Cross,” Knox said, and that's why most understand the need to carefully craft the strategy for public access.
The sense of ownership also has sparked some emotion over access issues.
Objections are expected from operators of Jeep tours, said Cave Creek Vice Mayor Ralph Mozilo, a member of the Spur Cross planning committee.
The area has been a favorite destination for tour operators and their customers for decades. In addition, officials for the Tonto National Forest, just north of Spur Cross, have said they want to maintain motorized access through Spur Cross to the forest.
“Tour operators may continue to yell and scream, but the fact is there will be no motor vehicles on the property. It's a conservation area, and motor vehicles are just not going to happen there,” Mozilo said.
The master plan should be completed by December, officials said. The public will have more opportunities for comment when the plan goes to the Cave Creek Town Council, Maricopa County Parks Commission and the county Board of Supervisors for approval.
Although it will be some time before a trail system is complete, the town and county hope to begin opening parts of the preserve to the public by early next year, officials said.