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Pima County's nat'l monuments should be safe from Trump's wrath

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What the Devil won't tell you

Pima County's nat'l monuments should be safe from Trump's wrath

Good business should appeal to politically challenged president

  • The Ironwood Forest National Monument northwest of Tucson was created in 2000 in part to protect the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl. The birds were taken off the endangered species list in 2007.
    BLMThe Ironwood Forest National Monument northwest of Tucson was created in 2000 in part to protect the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl. The birds were taken off the endangered species list in 2007.

President Clinton established, near Gila Bend, the Sonoran Desert National Monument during the final days of his presidency. The year before, he'd created the Ironwood Forest National Monument just north of us.

Now President Donald Trump has included them in a potential roll-back of national monuments across the country. Four of Arizona's 18 national monument sites are covered under his executive order.

I don't expect the Ironwood monument to be de-listed, or rather there's a damned fine reason for the blade-and-grade types to keep things just as they are.

Trump would be a stupid developer – let alone a president – to decommission a pair of national monuments in Pima County.

At least he better not. I lived this stuff for my first three years at the Tucson Citizen. The Ironwood National Monument involves a low point in my career. That was the day I made the front page of the Arizona Daily Star, which sucked because I worked for the Tucson Citizen.

So, first, I'm going to tell you this quick story so you know the roots of my bias.

In March 2000, I was covering a Pima County Board of Supervisors meeting that included special guest star Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. He was there to hear a request from supervisors beseeching him ask Clinton to turn 72,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management property into the Ironwood Forest National Monument. That meant more protection and a lot less development.

The proposal was part of the ambitious Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, which was an effort to guide growth, protect the desert and get developers out from under the Endangered Species Act.

County staff and Babbitt were scheduled to hike the land after the meeting and once the supes wrapped up business that day, I asked quietly if I “could go along.” County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry (being Chuck) said sure but …

They weren't going to wait for me, so I had to: 1) Intercept the convoy of Suburbans; 2) Keep up with them and 3) no water would be available for me from their personal stash. I thought about it for a second and said “Deal!” I wasn't quite as stealthy as I had thought because right behind me the Star's Joe Salkowski had horned in and said “Great. See you all there.”

The city desk was happy, so long as I could arrange for a photographer to meet me there. Where? I hadn't a clue. I would know when I got there. This patch of land wasn't what one would call “close.” It was 30 miles away. All I knew was that we were driving up to Magee and turning right. Then we'd take a left at the thing, a right where that bush used to be and then go until we stopped.

No problem. I had a cell phone. This was early in their proliferation so … what did “one bar under the battery symbol mean?” So I sprinted back to my car, drove to the Circle K at Congress and Interstate 10 and waited, watching the road. Soon enough, I slipped in behind the county Suburbans which very quickly shattered the posted speed limit. I just happened to be driving my new used minivan, which was the only car I ever owned that could possibly approach the 80 miles per hour required to keep up. I had a problem though, because my Plymouth Grand Caravan devoured gas like a T-Rex eats a lawyer. So I did the last half of the trip below E, with Salkowski giving chase. Our photographer Norma Jean Gargasz was with us and then she wasn't. She called but the cell phone had stopped working because … batteries. What are you going to do?

We found our spot under Ragged Top, a peak overlooking the ironwood-studded basin spread out east  — and no photog. Of course, the Star photographer made it. I was wearing a brand-new dress shirt and thick cotton pants and spanking new leather shoes. I shut the door and quickly realized we were going to climb Ragged Top without water at 1 in the afternoon. Huckelberry and Babbitt both had 20 years on me and Salkowski but they quickly showed themselves to be in much better shape. Babbitt had been Arizona attorney general and governor for two and a half terms, before moving to Interior secretary for six years. He scooted right up what increasingly felt to me like an El-Capitan-like grade. Salkowski wasn't faring much better.

The good news was that I got a personal lecture on desert ecology from the secretary of the Interior. The bad news was everything else. The sun scorched, the desert flora attacked my clothes, while my photog was rambling the countryside looking for government Suburbans she would never find.

After the two-hour hike, I coasted into a Kwik-E-Mart on the fumes of fumes, before the long road back to South Park Avenue, where the desk wasn't the least bit interested in the fact that I had managed to score this field trip. They were more interested in how I let the Star in on it and how their photographer managed not to get lost because their reporter had a cell phone and a charger.

The next day, the Star came out. The art on 1A above the fold, was me hiking with Babbitt. Without art, the Citizen ran the story “inside” (a gut punch to a reporter). I wasn't what one would call “popular” with my editors on that day. Message: Always carry water. Always keep a change of clothes in the car. Always keep the cell charged. Never drive on E (more of a guideline than a rule).

Later that year, Clinton established the Ironwood Forest National Monument. Then in the last few days of his presidency, he established the Sonoran Desert National Monument in western Pima County. That was that, until this week.

On Thursday, President Trump said he was reviewing all national monuments established since 1996, calling them a “massive federal land grab.”

Well, Mr. President, it technically can't be a land grab if it was federal land already. A land grab would look like securing for the federal government more than a thousand miles of land to build a wall to satisfy xenophobia masquerading as an applause line. That's what you should maybe think about putting a stop to.

The land didn't even switch jurisdiction. It's not like Clinton took U.S. national forest land and moved it out from under the Agriculture Department and under the National Parks Service. It was and remains under the control of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The Southern Arizona monuments, though, aren't just good for the environment. They're good for business and not just the soy-based, eco-tourism business. I'm talking your kind of business, Mr. President.

Separate and unequal

It's not always the case. Westerners often see the land next door as a gravy train and get pissed off when that land can't be exploited. They're not Fox 'N Friends crazy on this point.

There's a misconception out there that federal lands are all somehow national parks. They're not.

Not all federal lands are equally protected. They exist on a spectrum.

National forests are under the supervision of the Department of Agriculture and its ever-evolving mission. Harvest is both literally and figuratively part of the department's “mixed-use” mandate. So the mining, grazing and logging are all allowed in the Coronado National Forest as a matter of course. It's a bitch to get a fat mining claim in modern times but these lands were set aside specifically for exploitation and mining has largely followed the ore reserves oversees and is dictated by commodity prices.

The real protection is found over in the Interior Department, which runs the National Park Service. Establishing a national park requires an act of Congress (Aaron Sorkin got this wrong in the West Wing episode “Enemies” because Jed Bartlet couldn't establish Big Sky National Park. Monument? Yes. Park? No.)

And yet within the Interior Department, BLM land is the least protected, as described by the University of Colorado history department, like so:

Uses of public lands that the BLM manages include commercial uses such as livestock grazing, mineral extraction, and logging; recreational uses such as fishing, hunting, birding, boating, hiking, biking, and off-roading; and conservation of biological, archeological, historical, and cultural resources. 

Even in the Ironwood, the mining company ASARCO holds grandfathered mining claims that it can exercise — monument or no.

One permit, many species

Trump is an urban builder who sees saguaros as little more than weeds and likely sneers at any monument that doesn't have his name emblazoned in gold.  He may very well be the first president to undo a national monument if it's about something un-Trumpian.

It's that developer's eye that could save Pima County's monuments.

They're part of the broader Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, which was the county's effort to guide growth, protect the environment and provide developers with a simpler path to get their projects built. So it was the work of environmentalists, property rights advocates and developers. A while back, I explained the benefits of the Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan the county sought with this plan.

Essentially, it's this: Every developer must present a Habitat Conservation Plan for an endangered species their project affects. The county would take out one permit for all species threatened and endangered species within its boundaries. That meant the community would go about protecting a lot of land.

Ironwood Forest National Monument is also part of a giant “mitigation bank” for the Endangered Species Act. Simply put, developers in critical habitat can build only if they preserve an amount of critical habitat up to three times the acreage that they blade. So the Ironwood's 72,000 acres of land got roped off, which in fact allows up to thousands of acres of development closer to town.

The plan moved at the speed of government and was finally got established with the feds last year. It's a 18-year project, which means the SDCP is became official the year it was old enough to vote. I don't see a project two decades in the making that helps open development being axed in the name of opening up development.

Unless, developers, miners and timber companies can find the 60 votes to change or repeal or change the Endangered Species Act, returning these lands to their previous designation doesn't make much business sense for Southern Arizona.

From the desert, up

The Ironwood came about as part of a locally grown conservation effort to secure both conservation an growth. More to the point, it did so locally, which is often not the case with these monuments.

Clinton established Escalante Staircase National Monument in Utah during the 1996 presidential campaign. Utahans lost their minds. Clinton signed the executive order during a ceremony at the Grand Canyon. Utah was that mad about it.

Back when the Ironwood was established, Gov. Jane Dee Hull huffed and U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe huffed and puffed but blew nothing down. They moved on without any sense of sustained outrage. Kolbe especially earned passing marks from Southern Arizona environmentalists on matters concerning his district. I had the sense that both were noting their outrage for the base and the process, even if they neither were particularly irked about the result.

In fact, President George W. Bush's solicitor general argued in favor of the presidential authority under the Antiquities Act to do just what Clinton did and the courts have a long history of upholding these designations.

Donald Trump may consider the environment no more than to decide whether to use a seven iron or a sand wedge. The environment isn't where he goes it's where he puts stuff.

I think Donald Trump the developer will understand the good-for-developers aspect of this deal, even if the environmental dimension is lost on him.

He'd better otherwise I had that crap day for nothing.

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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