Three years after environmental groups persuaded Arizona voters to reject a ballot measure to preserve 3 percent of the state’s vast land holdings as open space in favor of something better, a coalition committee has come up with a fresh plan — to preserve 3 percent.
While some conservationists will grumble at such a tiny fraction of the State Land Trust’s 9.2 million acres being set aside under the new proposal, there’s much more in it to satisfy a broad range of interests, from preservationists, to real estate brokers, to ranchers.
As explained elsewhere in this section by Ed Fox, committee chairman and a former head of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, the proposal is about far more than saving specific tracts of open space around our fast-growing urban area. It’s also about reforming the Arizona Land Department so it will do a better job in the future of deciding which state lands are suitable for preservation, which should be developed, and then smoothing out the process in either case.
The proposal also would allow ranchers to sign long-term leases for suitable state lands, in return for tougher environmental oversight.
There is much to commend the proposal, which Fox’s group wants to put on the November ballot. Public opinion surveys have shown increasing concern over urban sprawl, and rising interest in preserving some of the natural landscape in the path of development. Reforms that enable the Land Department to perform that function better would be welcome.
But there are also some questions. It will take a while to thoroughly analyze whether the nearly 290,000 acres designated for preservation under the proposal are indeed suitable — or whether more suitable lands have been left out.
Also, Arizona voters in the past have rejected ballot measures that would have given the Land Department more flexibility. They will have to be assured that this plan won’t let the department, say, cater too much to the wishes of developers at the expense of conservation.
Finally, there must be assurances the proposal won’t hurt the primary beneficiary of the State Land Trust — our public schools.
But as we more closely examine the fine print, the very fact that this proposal was forged by a wide range of interests gives it credibility.