A Mesa mining company has purchased a 200-acre cattle ranch in central Arizona, furthering the possibility of a swap with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for land in northeast Mesa that would be freed for new housing development.
However, a number of nearby residents are opposed to opening the parcel for development, and have lobbied Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.; City Councilman Rex Griswold; and BLM to kill the proposal.
In January, Red Mountain Mining, 4250 N. Bush Highway in northeast Mesa, closed escrow on the cattle ranch in Yavapai County, according to officials in the Yavapai County recorder’s office. The mining company made a down payment of a little more than $1.2 million. The sale price was $3.25 million, officials said.
The ranch is within the Agua Fria National Monument off Interstate 17 about 40 miles north of Phoenix. It is one of the few pieces of private property inside the 71,000-acre monument. BLM oversees the area and wants to acquire the ranch and add it to the monument.
Red Mountain Mining mines and sells decorative landscaping rock on the 200-acre federal parcel in northeast Mesa. Dale Longbrake, president of Red Mountain Mining, wants to eventually stop the operation and build custom homes on the property. By purchasing the newly acquired land, he will be in a position to trade it to the federal government for the Mesa-area parcel he now leases, which is BLM land.
Longbrake did not return phone calls seeking comment.
About two years ago, Red Mountain Mining approached BLM about taking ownership of the property in Mesa. The parcel is part of 439,600 acres that a 1988 BLM resource management plan targeted for disposal, primarily through exchange, said Janelle Smith, a BLM spokeswoman. The BLM field office in Phoenix oversees about 3.5 million acres of federal land in Arizona.
Red Mountain Mining began mining the federal parcel in Mesa in 1973. Between 1973 and 2000, the company shipped more than 3 million tons of rock, or an average of 328,000 tons a year, according to a 2002 operation plan on file in the Phoenix BLM field office.
The 2002 operation plan predicts the company will complete its operation on the Mesa parcel in 2015. If the swap fails, the firm is required to restore the land to its natural state when mining ceases, which will cost at least $245,746, according to the plan.
Red Mountain Mining pays $1.25 a ton, or about $400,000 a year, to BLM for the rock. The current contract began Oct. 9 and will expire when 265,000 tons of rock are removed, which is expected to happen sometime in 2005.
BLM geologist Jeff Garrett said the bureau’s interest is to maximize the revenue to the federal government by having the parcel mined until the stock is depleted. The money goes into the federal treasury, Garrett said.
BLM began holding public meetings on the proposed land swap late last year, igniting a firestorm of criticism from residents of Red Mountain Ranch in northeast Mesa. The community, spanning more than 800 acres, borders the mining operation to the south. Home prices range from $150,000 to more than $1 million.
Griswold, who represents the area, is working on a proposal to have at least 80 acres of the federal parcel untouched by the mining operation transferred to the city for a park. The move would give BLM and residents more time to talk about what should happen with the rest of the property, Griswold said.
Red Mountain Ranch resident Matt Winker said when the mining operation stops, he wants the property to be restored and to remain under BLM oversight. He sent petitions containing more than 400 signatures by people opposing the land swap to Flake and Griswold.
"I want to know if you can take half of that and use it as a park, why can’t you take the whole 200 acres?" he asked.
Resident Paul Hoss said he would support the land swap if the 80 acres were transferred to the city and preserved, and if residents had a say in how the rest of the property were developed.
"A good plan would settle this thing for the foreseeable future," Hoss said.
Smith said BLM has not made a decision. Matt Specht, Flake’s press secretary, said the congressman has not taken a position on the proposed trade.