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The Real Deal

For once, preservation wins out, as a state purchase protects land and fish

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Not often is there good news about Arizona's carnivorous suburban sprawl. But here's a bit: Due to a sterling little deal between real estate agents, government agencies and one nonprofit group, a slice of crucial natural habitat is being spared.

In July, the Arizona Game and Fish Department announced its $2.25 million purchase of nearly 900 acres of an old ranch nestled along the Santa Rita Mountains, south of Tucson. This adds to adjacent property also bought for preservation in 2004, all amid a subdivision sprouting across the 20,000-acre Salero Ranch.

A spring-fed oasis called Coal Mine Canyon was specifically targeted, and the buy was brokered by The Trust for Public Land, a San Francisco-based group helping to preserve parks, gardens and wildlife habitat.

The heart of this pact was an innovative, private-public mechanism that's gaining national prominence. But its soul is the Gila topminnow and other wildlife clinging to nature's quickly unraveling threads.

"There are only a few populations of Gila topminnow in existence right now, and we think one of the most important ones recently died out," says Joan Scott, habitat program manager for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. "So we feel that (the Coal Mine Canyon) was really critical--not only for that population on the property we purchased, but also since it is probably the source population for two downstream populations."

Even the property owner, First United Realty, agreed to help--despite a slightly shrunken profit margin. "As a developer, you've always got issues between private land and public regulation," says Ross Wilson, First United vice president. "But this was a good example of a private-public partnership that worked out. And I think it sets a good example."

Coal Mine's spring feeds into Sonoita Creek and other watershed areas, which are infested with voracious non-native species such as sunfish escaped from nearby stock tanks and Patagonia Lake. Meanwhile, Scott and other wildlife officials had worried about the spring's future, as homes and aquifer-draining wells sprouted all around.

The first move to protect the watershed came two years ago, when the TPL brokered an initial purchase from First United. Combined with the latest acquisition, Arizona now owns 3,502 acres of the land, which will be managed by the state parks department in conjunction with the neighboring Sonoita Creek State Natural Area.

This purchase also places Arizona on the vanguard of a broad preservation trend, one that's seen American taxpayers funding more than $23 billion in open-space purchases over recent years. In turn, roughly 1,200 groups such as the TPL help spearhead those transactions. While the TPL specializes in orchestrating deals, others such as The Nature Conservancy manage property they acquire. Today, the amount of acres protected by trusts nationwide is well more than 6 million, up from just 1.9 million in 1990.

But not all of those deals are without controversy. Conservative groups have opposed using public funds for open-space preservation, and nonprofits have sometimes drawn fire for their role in private-to-public land transactions. Two years ago, for example, the TPL took heat over its purchase of 695 acres for the Sweetwater Preserve. In that deal, the group purchased the Tucson Mountains property for $11,084,850 from Sweetwater Properties, and sold it a day later to Pima County for $11,730,000.

Critics castigated the TPL for pocketing nearly $650,000. But proponents of the Sweetwater purchase argued that no other groups--from The Nature Conservancy to the Sierra Club--had necessary resources for purchasing the land in time to save it.

And the TPL itself pledged to plow those resources back into other Arizona purchases; a reported $40,000 was contributed toward the Coal Mine purchase.

But as with Sweetwater, this summer's deal likely wouldn't have been made without TPL's participation. "We work out the real estate negotiations, and try to help our agency partners find the funding to buy the property," says Michael Patrick, the group's project manager for Coal Mine Canyon.

"We invest money in appraisals and surveys that you need to get the project done. Sometimes we also buy (property) and hold on to it for quite awhile, although that's not the ideal situation for us." In the case of Coal Mine Canyon, "we owned it for about a month or so before Game and Fish was ready to buy it from us," he says.

The state and TPL first purchased a 2,628-acre chunk of the property for $2.25 million in December 2004. Reflecting rising land prices and other factors, Arizona Game and Fish then paid another $2.25 million for the smaller 900-acre parcel this summer. The state Heritage Fund, which is fed by a portion of lottery proceeds, contributed a total of $3 million for the purchases, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided $1.5 million in endangered-species grants.

The newly protected land will join the 5,000-acre Sonoita Creek Natural Area. And that's a godsend to wildlife, says Joan Scott. "Not only is it critical for the Gila topminnow population on the property we purchased, but it is probably the source population for two downstream minnow populations."

The priority, she says, was making sure that Coal Mine "had a secure population. It's part of the recovery plan to secure native extant populations of topminnows."

It is also a work in progress, as 40-acre ranchettes spring up all around. "We're trying to make sure we have enough buffer that we can protect the watershed," she says. "We think the fish will survive with that development as long as we were able to protect the watershed."

But the fresh sanctuary will host more than just topminnows. "There are 16 listed or sensitive species protected by this purchase," she says. "It's a corridor for the Mexican spotted owl, and we hope to restore the desert pupfish and Gila chub."

And the final chapter remains. "We didn't have enough money to buy it all the first time. So we bought what we thought was the absolutely critical area. We're hoping to go back for a third piece soon. It's the same seller, and an adjacent, fantastic riparian area that we can use for restoring more native fish.

"With a third parcel, we would want to put chub in," she says. "It's also foraging habitat for the lesser long-nosed bat, and there are yellow-billed cuckoos in the area."

In a state where cuckoos are currently outnumbered by cul-de-sacs, that's a blessing indeed.

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