Gaze south from the Santa Cruz River's parched banks, and you'll glimpse trappings of the past—the august San Xavier Mission, the vast desert plains, the irrigation acequias that carried precious water to early crops.
But glance eastward toward the halls of power in Washington, D.C., and you'll just discover a modern political roadblock.
On April 17, 2007, Southern Arizona Reps. Raúl Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords introduced the Santa Cruz Valley National Heritage Area Act in the U.S. Congress. And on March 30, 2009, President Obama signed the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act, which added nine new heritage areas across the country.
But the Santa Cruz Valley was not among them. That's because late last year, Sen. Jon Kyl had it pulled from the lands package, according to a staffer with the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
Was it parliamentary payback? Perhaps so, say political wags who suggest that there's little love lost between left-leaning Grijalva and conservative Kyl. The two have clashed over Kyl's proposed land exchange in Pinal County, which would allow Resolution Copper to establish one of the largest mines in the nation. Grijalva has slowed that swap in his powerful position as chairman of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.
Kyl also recently joined Arizona Sen. John McCain in publicly criticizing a measure, proposed by Grijalva, to permanently withdraw sensitive areas around the Grand Canyon from uranium mining.
Now it seems that Kyl is holding the Santa Cruz Heritage area hostage in this high-stakes tit-for-tat. But if so, the senator isn't saying; numerous calls to his spokesman, Andrew Wilder, were not returned.
In any case, Southern Arizona may wind up missing out on a critical economic opportunity.
The proposed area would include about 3,300 square miles of what is considered a distinct physical and cultural landscape with a cohesive, unique identity. Establishing its parameters didn't come without some elbow grease, however: Studies and research included everyone from the Native American tribes and ranchers to The Center for Desert Archaeology.
Heritage areas are eligible for investment opportunities and increased tourism. That has helped the proposal gain support from such disparate quarters as the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association to some area ranchers and The Nature Conservancy.
"It would also allow us to work with the National Park Service, to promote the history and culture of the region," says Vanessa Bechtol, executive director of the Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance. "Other regions have seen significant increases in tourism once they were designated as national heritage areas."
There's another advantage to the title: money. "Once we're designated, we become eligible for federal funding—matched by local funding—to carry out programs of the heritage area," Bechtol says. Those efforts could range from visitors' programs and local-foods directories to historic preservation.
So what's not to like? Well, the Pima County Farm Bureau can name a few things, primary among them fears that the designation could impede property rights. Bureau concerns "surround the fact that it's a federal designation which encompasses a lot of private property," says Stefanie Smallhouse, immediate past president of the conservative agriculture group. "The people who own property within that designation are concerned that it will affect their rights, as far as what they can do on their property."
Smallhouse points to the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area, created by Congress in 1999, as a controversial case-in-point. After some 700 property owners asked to be excluded from that heritage area, Grijalva introduced a bill reducing its boundaries—a measure ultimately supported by Kyl and passed into law in 2006.
To avoid a replay here, says Bechtol, the Santa Cruz legislation includes language specifically protecting private property. Nothing within the measure "abridges the rights of any property owner (whether public or private), including the right to refrain from participating in any plan, project, program or activity conducted within the National Heritage Area," reads the Grijalva bill. Nor does it require property owners to permit public access, nor does it change "any duly adopted land use regulation, approved land use plan, or other regulatory authority of any federal, state, tribal, or local agency."
But that doesn't assuage Smallhouse, who counters that local officials will still be tempted to enact zoning that draws the most heritage-related funding. "So there's a pretty high risk of abuse from city and county governments," she says, "to use that federal funding as an incentive to not let you maybe do something with your property that you wanted to do."
Nonsense, says Bechtol. She cites a study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which contacted property-rights groups scattered around the nation. None of them were able "to provide us with a single example of a heritage area directly affecting—positively or negatively—property values or use," the GAO concluded.
So it seems that the property-rights folks may have created a bogeyman where one doesn't exist. They might also have given Sen. Kyl cover for spiking Grijalva's measure out of spite. Either way, the Santa Cruz Valley National Heritage Area—and the needed economic boost it portends—are indefinitely on hold. And all for naught, says Bechtol.
"There's a misconception that this is a land grab," she says. "But it has nothing to do with that. The goal of this heritage area is just to tell the story of our region and how it contributes to the national history."