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Planning "paradise" -- 23,000 acres to allocate
Tuesday, September 11, 2012
In workshops and surveys conducted over multiple years, when residents were asked why they chose Pinal County as their home, the majority of people designated “open spaces” as their primary reason. People love “being able to see for miles, have cleaner air, and greater recreational opportunities.”
With that focus, the Parks, Trails, Open Space, and Public Lands Committee of the Pinal Partnership (a private-public partnership) established four groups around the county to provide a mechanism for citizen input.
For purposes of this project, a grant was filed and received so that the National Park Service’s (NPS) Rivers, Trails Conservation Assistance Program would assign a staff member to assist the volunteers in holding meetings and reaching recommendations. Cate Bradley, the assigned NPS staff member, serves as a neutral facilitator to the many parties involved with divergent opinions about how the land might be used.
What is the opportunity?
Region 4 of Pinal County encompasses Maricopa, Casa Grande, and other lands in western Pinal County to the Maricopa County border. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages 23,000 acres of this land. Pinal County would like to establish agreements with BLM to manage the land as a regional park. The opportunity is that, once an agreement has been made for Pinal County to manage the land, after 25 years of management, Pinal County becomes owner of the land for free! (This is the process that allowed Phoenix to become the owner of South Mountain Park, currently the largest city park in North America. This potential regional park would be larger than South Mountain Park.)
This sounds like a win-win situation for all parties involved. The process to turn the management of lands over to a municipal entity takes approximately five years. And, Pinal County must designate a jurisdiction spokesperson to the BLM for these discussions.
Since the County does not have a Parks and Recreation Department, the Board of Supervisors must decide who, or what group, will act as the BLM spokesperson and establish that entity. Several options are possible: set up a volunteer board to oversee the process, establish a County Parks & Recreation system, or designate an individual to serve as the liaison. Since none of these are currently in place and an election in November will add two extra Supervisors to Pinal County, this process has already hit a snag.
What can result?
The Region 4 group has met monthly and decided that the 23,000 acres of BLM land would be ideal for: trails for hikers, bikers, and equestrian activities; areas for OHV (off highway vehicles); recreational shooters and other sportsmen; and picnic areas. These were the usages, both historical and preferred, cited by those who attended the monthly meetings.
After a “boots on the ground” caravan where over a dozen people spent most of a Saturday traveling the extent of the land involved, overlay maps were developed showing where current usage and proposed recreational uses were favored.
Now, the results will be available to the Pinal County Board of Supervisors to ask them to move forward with these proposals and get the process rolling with BLM.
Parks are definitely a win-win situation for communities. People flock to parks for a multitude of health enhancing activities, as well as a sense of community. The other factor not always considered is that parks are a major revenue generator.
In a recent published report, “The Economic Benefits of Open Space and Trails in Pinal County, AZ,” sponsored by the Trust for Public Lands (2012), the estimated benefit of “outdoor tourism” for Pinal County was valued at over $52 million per year! That doesn’t include health and recreational opportunities for residents, plus the enhanced property values, water supply, and other potential economic benefits.
The survey was a result of a competitive process where Pinal County was chosen as the sole area to be studied in the country. Pinal County was seen as “the epicenter of growth in Arizona and the Southwest” and was the “second fastest growing county in the Nation between 2000 and 2010.”
With all of the growth, the four regions studying the recreational opportunities also observed the need for conservation of resources. Another of the regions is encouraging stewardship of a 144,000-acre area near the San Pedro River that has great biodiversity, including serving as a “critical habitat for migrating birds and other species.”
A third region’s discussion centered on damage caused by illegal OHV usage and also had ranchers expressing concerns for the lands in their area.
The ultimate outcome of the studies, discussions, education of the public, dealings with the BLM and other entities can be a richer experience for all parties: better outdoor opportunities, more county revenues, and a better quality of life for all Pinal County residents and visitors.
Gina D’Abella, ECO, Inc. Executive Director, and Cate Bradley, National Parks Service, served as sources for information. The reporter has served on the Region 4 committee.
Shelley Gillespie / CopaNews.com
This is part of the area being considered as a Regional Park.