A groundswell of opposition to the largest land trade in the history of the Prescott National Forest is building in the Verde Valley.
A group that formed to oppose the Yavapai Ranch land exchange, the Citizens for Public Review (CPR), has gathered hundreds of signatures on petitions and sent letters to Arizona Congressmen. CPR’s members include town council members from Clarkdale, Camp Verde and Jerome.
"The bottom line is the process," Camp Verde Town Council Member Tony Gioia said.
The Yavapai Ranch Limited Partnership is trying to speed up the exchange process by conducting it via a Congressional bill, instead of through the Forest Service’s more detailed National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process.
"The public deserves a public process, and the administrative (vs. Congressional) process is the public process," Clarkdale Town Council Member David Leibforth said.
The NEPA process requires detailed analysis of the effects of the land exchange, public participation, and the opportunity to appeal the Forest Service decision.
While Congressmen Bob Stump, John Shadegg and John McCain have written to CPR members to assure them the process will include the public, none have promised to conduct meetings in Yavapai County.
"Should a decision be made in the future to consider the exchange proposal through the legislative process, please be assured that any such actions will most certainly include public participation through not only comments and concerns such as yours, but will be done in a manner that includes the public in the decision-making process," Stump wrote to Gioia this month.
The exchange would consolidate 170 square miles of checkerboard land about 30 miles north of Prescott.
Even a long-time Prescott group, the Citizens for Protection of the Prescott Area, has joined in the fight against legislation. So has a national organization, the Western Land Exchange Project. Jeri Smith-Fornara is a member of both.
"We are not for or against this land exchange at this moment," Smith-Fornara said. Rather, the groups want the environmental studies and public participation that come with the NEPA process, a process that Congress does not have to follow.
"Without the disclosure and analysis NEPA provides, the public cannot possibly fully understand the consequences, good or bad, of a land exchange proposal – particularly one as large and complex as the Yavapai Ranch exchange," Western Land Exchange Project Director Janine Blaeloch wrote to the U.S. House Resources Committee.
A Yavapai Ranch lobbyist has written a draft bill for Congress to consider, but it didn’t go anywhere during the last session. Smith-Fornara worries it will surface in January.
The Forest Service would acquire most of the checkerboard sections of the 100,000-acre Yavapai Ranch, and in exchange the Yavapai Ranch owners would keep part of the ranch plus acquire various parcels on the Prescott, Kaibab and Coconino forests near Cottonwood/Clarkdale, Camp Verde, Flagstaff, Williams and Prescott. Ranch owner Fred Ruskin has said he would immediately sell the Prescott-area lands to the summer camps that now use it.
The Forest Service wants the exchange so it can consolidate the checkerboard lands and preserve the wildlife habitat and other values of the pine-studded forestlands north of Prescott.
The CPR members are Verde Valley residents. While Williams and Flagstaff governments support the exchange so they can acquire land for their airports and other city infrastructures, Verde Valley officials are split in their support or opposition to the land exchange.
Yavapai County Board of Supervisors Chairman Chip Davis of Clarkdale also has voiced concerns about the process. He voted against a development agreement with Yavapai Ranch, in which the county agrees to consider a master-planned community in the future and the ranch owners agree not to split up their land into two-acre home sites. But western Yavapai County supervisors outvoted him.
"It’s not about blocking the largest land exchange in the Prescott National Forest, it’s about the infusion of 4,070 acres of private land in the Verde Valley," Davis told the other supervisors in July. "You well more than double the private land in the Verde Valley. That is a huge impact.
"It’s looked upon as negative, because we want to have a public process."
CPR members point out recent revelations about federal land exchanges and consistent under-valuing of public lands. The current proposal looks like a much better deal for the Ruskin family, Leibforth said.
Many CPR members – including Leibforth, Gioia, and Clarkdale resident Terri Brunsman – flat-out oppose the land exchange in general.
Brunsman lives near up to 1,300 acres of the Prescott Forest that the Ruskins would end up owning in the current land exchange proposal.
The area doesn’t have the water to support more homes, said Brunsman, who already has problems with the water supply in her well.
"I don’t see any point in it," Leibforth said of the exchange. "Why take away the limited public lands that we have? It serves a purpose by just being there."
The exchange proposal would put nearly 4,000 acres along both sides of Camp Verde’s Interstate 17 corridor into private hands, and Camp Verde also has water-supply issues, Gioia said. The town already has plenty of commercial and industrial land available, he said, and if the property became home sites, it would more than double the town’s population of 8,000.
"It’s hard to find support (for the exchange) in the general population," Gioia said. The town council is split.
Ruskin has made it clear that his family plans to develop much of the Verde Valley land.
"We see no scientific evidence that the proposed development of these many square miles of forest lands would have sufficient water resources without severely compromising the present communities’ supplies," Gioia said.