Arizona Daily Star
Congress doesn't agree on much. One thing on which it should agree is expanding Southern Arizona's two-piece gem - Saguaro National Park.
Earlier this month, Southern Arizona Democratic Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva introduced a bill that would expand the boundaries of the park by 2,525 acres. Grijalva, the ranking member of the House Natural Resources subcommittee on public lands and environmental regulations, was joined by state Democrats Ron Barber and and Ann Kirkpatrick as co-sponsors of the Saguaro National Park Boundary Expansion and Study Act of 2013, HR 1934.
Three similar park-expansion bills have been unsuccessful. However, Grijalva told us the coalition of diverse groups supporting the expansion make the timing right for passage.
Environmental and business groups, scientists, Tucson's mayor and two Pima County supervisors support expanding the park with properties chosen for their ecological, geological and scenic qualities.
The proposed expansion includes lush desert and a rare example of a flourishing riparian area, the Star's Tony Davis reported last Sunday. It would create a permanent wildlife corridor to the Santa Cruz River from Saguaro National Park through the Sweetwater Preserve in the West Unit.
What sets the bill apart from three previous unsuccessful park-expansion measures, the Star reported, is including 1,374 acres for the park's East Unit that for more than 20 years have been part of the planned Rocking K development in the Rincon Valley.
In previous efforts, the National Park Service and conservationists wanted more property and developer-investor Donald Diamond didn't want to sell. A project with thousands of homes in addition to resorts and golf courses was in the works near the park boundary. Market conditions have changed. The project has been scaled back, and Diamond and the Rocking K Development firm have become willing sellers.
This is property the park has been "lusting after" for about 25 years, said consultant Luther Propst, former director of the Sonoran Institute who has worked on Saguaro Park issues for more than two decades. The acreage has "high conservation value" and is national-park-quality land. It's not property that has to be restored, Propst told us.
Funding the expansion won't come directly out of taxpayers' pockets. Parcels for the expansion could be donated, traded or purchased with money from the Land and Water Conservation Program, a fund established in 1964 from offshore-drilling fees to finance land acquisitions and conservation, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.
Grijalva told us he prefers purchase over land swaps because there is no question whether land values are comparable and the public gets a better deal.
The measure does not include funding for maintenance and operation. Purchasing property can be a protracted process. Thus, Congress has time to shore up the federal budget, which includes the park, before the additional land becomes park property.
In addition to keeping with the community's desire for open space and conservation, Barber told us the expansion would be good for the local economy. The addition to the popular park would increase the number of visitors and the number of ecotourism jobs, he said.
The bill's passage hinges on bipartisan support, and Sen. John McCain, who introduced similar legislation in the past, appears to be the linchpin.
Several supporters said they had expected McCain to introduce companion legislation in the Senate. McCain's office told us last week that the senator was reviewing the bill.
We expect real estate prices to continue their upward trend, making it time to buy this property.
We encourage McCain to support HR 1934 or to introduce companion legislation. It's time for the proposed expansion of the park to become reality.
Let U.S. Sen. John McCain know you support the expansion of Saguaro National Park at website mccain.senate.gov or call 1-202-224-2235.