City gives new meaning to 'urban cowboy'

The ad is enough to make an urban cowboy drool. Wanted: Experienced ranch hand. Salary: $9.95 per hour. Duties: herding, feeding, castrating, and hauling big ornery critters to market.

Employer: City of Tucson.

In a twist that points up some of the unexpected aspects of battling urban sprawl, Tucson finds itself in the position of having to hire someone to take care of the official herd of cows.

Former Mayor George Miller probably wasn't thinking about cowpunchers in 1998, when he led a drive to purchase the verdant Bellota Ranch. Spanning a rugged topography of shady canyons and cactus-laced hillsides, the old grubstake "was set to be subdivided in five-acre parcels before we stepped in," Mr. Miller says.

With financial help from The Nature Conservancy, Tucson purchased 41,000 acres for $2.5 million. Miller hopes the US Forest Service will eventually buy it from the city. Either way, he says, at least it's safe. "The importance of this property was very strong with me," says Miller, now retired. "This was a chance to save a piece a land, not just for the city residents, but for the whole valley."

That has led to one of the more unusual job postings in city government. In order to maintain its grazing leases, the city purchased 80-odd cows. Now it needs someone to wrangle them. It's tried advertising on the city's Web page and plastered signs in area feed stores. Applicants must be able to heft 75 pounds and assist with animal births.

While the city's job opening may be rarefied, the dynamics behind it are increasingly common as communities like Tucson grapple with urban sprawl. To preserve shrinking open spaces, they're turning to public and private collaborations, and a variety of innovative strategies.

Conservation easements have become popular in Western ranch country, where the special deeds allow owners to remain on the land while permanently protecting it from commercial development. Sometimes local governments simply buy threatened land outright, often with the help of preservation groups, like The Nature Conservancy.

Land trusts buy pristine real estate before it can be developed, holding it until local, state, or federal agencies can arrange funding to acquire it.

The number of land trusts has doubled to 1,200 in the past decade, coinciding with a growing public consensus. According to an August poll by Americans for Our Heritage and Recreation, more than 80 percent of voters "feel a sense of urgency about protecting land, water, wildlife, and other natural resources for future generations." Another 67 percent agreed that "we need to do something about it now."

Nowhere is that need more obvious than in Sun Belt states like Arizona, where warm winters and a booming economy have sparked population increases from 3.6 million in 1990 to the current 5 million. Pima County, which encompasses Tucson, has seen its population swell to 866,000- a 29.5 percent jump from 1990.

At the same time, rising land prices are making it tougher to protect open space. "The economy is really strong right now, and there's a lot of incentive and a lot of money to develop," says Susan Ives, spokeswoman for the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land. "We have to respond by raising more and more money ourselves.

"But there's also a trend that communities are voting to tax themselves to protect the open space that's important to their community," she says.

That sentiment was seen in Tucson with the Bellota Ranch purchase, and with an ambitious project called the Sonoran Desert Protection Plan.

Overseen by Pima County, which encompasses Tucson, the project will eventually spend millions in taxpayer funds to purchase vast tracts of sensitive desert. This collaboration between government and environmental, business, and agricultural groups is being closely watched at the national level, and enjoys backing from Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

"The plan came from seeing Tucson grow further and further out into the desert," says Carolyn Campbell, who heads the Sonoran coalition. "It isn't about controlling sprawl, per se. It's about protecting endangered species and their habitat. But we're finding that the two are actually one and the same here."

Citizens are also making their voices heard at the ballot box. Last year, the Land Trust Alliance monitored 102 preservation initiatives in 22 states. "Of those, 92 won," says Russell Shay, director of public policy. "That's 90 percent, and amounting to more than $1.8 billion in funds."

Congress has also played a preservation role, helping protect nearly 7 million acres of parkland and open space under the 1964 Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Conservationists are also backing a bill called the Conservation and Reinvestment Act. If passed, it would secure another $2.9 billion in offshore oil and gas revenues for parks, wildlife habitat and historic preservation programs.

Sensing the public mood, even fiscal conservatives like New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman are jumping on the open-space bandwagon. Governor Whitman oversees the nation's most densely populated state, with 8 million constituents on 5 million acres.

Last year, she introduced the Garden State Preservation Trust, with hopes of setting aside 1 million acres for farmland, parks, and wildlife preserves. Voters approved the 10-year, $1 billion package by a 2-to-1 margin.

Open space is also a bread-and-butter issue in cities like Tucson, where tourism is crucial to local prosperity.

"We definitely market the aspect of having pristine and natural beauty to all of our visitors," says Richard Vaughan, vice president of the Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Annually, tourism has a $1.8 billion impact here."

But money aside, maintaining open space can be very personal. "I've been out to the Bellota Ranch several times," says former mayor Miller.

"It still has three or four old ranch houses, and many, many beautiful places. Now it can be treasured by generations to come."

Or at least by one very lucky cowhand.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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