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Mon, Jan. 27

Compromise reached on land exchange<br>

Yavapai Ranch owner Fred Ruskin, left, walks with Williams City Manager Dennis Wells during a December 2003 guided tour of the checkerboarded Yavapai Ranch lands.

The exchange consolidates the biggest checkerboard ownership of land in Arizona. It also allows Yavapai Ranch owner Fred Ruskin and his family to swap government-owned parcels of land within the ranch and around local communities that the Forest Service doesn’t want in exchange for thousands of acres of forestlands the Forest Service would much rather protect instead. Those valuable forestlands — containing antelope runs, Native American ruins, and watersheds — are also within the boundaries of the ranch, but were slated for home development by the Ruskins if the exchange failed to go through.

The Forest Service is happy for the reasons above and the municipalities involved are happy because the exchange, being done through the legislative process as a bill, provides communities with an opportunity to acquire parcels of land needed for economic development, community services, and open space.

Williams, Flagstaff, and Camp Verde will be able to acquire the parcels by purchasing them from Ruskin once the exchange is finalized. However, the bill stipulates that the communities can opt for a direct purchase from the Forest Service if a mutual agreement with the ranch owners can’t be reached.

“I think this is a big break for the exchange and a big break for Williams,” Wells said upon news of the compromise. “Many of these land parcels that will be freed up from Forest Service ownership and put into private hands can be utilized for any number of things by Williams in the future.”

That, he said, will include land for expansion of the current water treatment plant and a new waste water treatment plant, new city well sites, future parks, cemetery expansion, and even increased revenue for the city in the form of sites for commercial business development.

“There’s just so many options right now, that it’s just a whole new day as far as potential uses for the town.”

Wells then went on to thank the city council for its support and pointed out that not only was Williams involved from the very start of talks about a potential land exchange as many as eight years ago, but was key in getting the exchange to the point it is now.

The latest version of the bill — introduced into the House last year by Republican Congressman Rick Renzi, Ariz., District 1 and into the Senate by Republican Senators John McCain and John Kyl — has new language added to it. Title One of S. 849, the Northern Arizona National Forest Land Exchange Act of 2003, outlines the exchange parameters themselves. The added section, Title Two, facilitates the creation of a multi-stakeholder partnership to manage water resources in the Verde Valley. It states that the federal government may provide scientific, technical, and financial assistance to state and local water management efforts and limits the amount of water that may be used on the Camp Verde parcel upon its transfer to private ownership.

Such has been the major issue among detractors that could have killed the bill had a compromise not been reached. In December 2003, Senator McCain met with over 600 Camp Verde residents that were opposed to the exchange because of its possible impact on the Verde Valley watershed, a large portion of which is within the boundaries of the exchange. Impressed by the attendance of the meeting and the validity of their concerns, McCain came dangerously close to shutting the exchange down while trying to find a way to satisfy both sides.

“The persistent drought makes all of us aware that the state of Arizona is at a crucial point where decisions regarding growth and water use must be made with the assurance of long-term availability of water supplies,” McCain said in the release. “Our modified proposal recognizes this fact. It will not only help to achieve a fair and equitable exchange, but it also initiates a process for addressing one of the most crucial challenges facing Arizona: sound water resource management.”

In the same press release, Kyl added his own words.

“This proposal achieves three key goals — protect environmentally important forest to be acquired by the U.S. Forest Service, protect the Verde watershed by limiting water use on land traded to Yavapai Ranch Limited Partnership as well as facilitate the creation of a new partnership of stakeholders in sound water management of the watershed, and provide an opportunity for Flagstaff, Williams and Camp Verde as well as several community or charitable organizations to acquire former Forest Service land important to their operations.”

In an official statement from Amy LeGere, who handles media relations for Yavapai Ranch, she says the Ruskins appreciate the efforts of Senators McCain, Kyl and their staffs to reach compromise language for the land exchange, and Congressman Renzi and staff for their efforts. She added Yavapai Ranch also looks forward to an early opportunity to review the final legislation.

Mcain and Kyl are now pushing the Energy and Natural Resources Committee — charged with making any final changes to the bill in markup — to act quickly so it can be passed before Congress recesses at the end of September.

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