Marana and the Arizona Game and Fish Department have received from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service a grant to underwrite part of the town's effort to create a multispecies habitat conservation plan.

The $240,000 federal grant will cover about 60 percent of the expected $403,000 first-year costs of developing the plan. The process is expected to take two years and a second grant appropriation may be needed for year two, Marana Town Manager Mike Hein said.

To create the plan, Hein has put together a small "working group" representing governments and organizations that have an interest in preservation and land use planning in the town and Pima County as a whole.

Perhaps the most significant of those interests is Pima County, which will be represented by County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.

As part of the town's preparation for beginning the planning process, Marana and the county recently signed a memorandum of understanding that calls for Huckelberry's participation in Marana's effort, and allows Marana to use much of the data the county has already collected for the creation of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.

The county's plan, begun in 1998, initially called for regional cooperation among the various governments within the county but factionalism and other infighting over the county's planning process left the county developing a conservation plan on its own.

The deal with Marana is significant in that it may signal the beginning of true regional conservation planning in the county and prevent the creation of multiple conservation plans that create different land use standards along arbitrary borders.

Huckelberry said the most significant aspect of the cooperative agreement with Marana is the town's use of county data.

"They really need their own plan because they're a local government that has land use decision making authority just like the county does. We really can't make decisions inside their jurisdiction," Huckelberry said. "The goal here is to make sure the plans are compatible.

"My view is that I hope that the science of conservation planning is the best determiner of what happens. Science doesn't change across jurisdictional lines … It's what I call that boundary interface. You can't have habitat that's deserving of protection on one side of the jurisdictional boundary that loses that protection on the other side and have anything that realistically works."

Carolyn Campbell, executive director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, an amalgam of more than 40 conservation groups, agreed with Huckelberry about the importance of cooperation between the governments.

"With Marana, particularly, a good example is the pygmy owl. If we're going to be trying to protect areas for current populations and we want to keep two different metapopulations hooked up, we want to make sure a corridor is protected, a viable corridor that will have the two populations communicating," Campbell said

"We want to make sure that, if Pima County is spending resources to try to protect an area, that we're not going to have a blockage there with Marana approving a huge development right in the path.

"I'm actually excited about their process. I think the next best thing to having one big happy family with the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan is having smaller subregional plans like Marana, in particular, being such a big player," Campbell said. "Their landscape is a bit different and their priorities could be different but to have them have the same bottom line goals, I think we're in a pretty good place. And who knows, we may have them as part of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan."

Huckelberry said the county had many motivations for striking a deal with Marana including a financial incentive created by Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz.

Kolbe, who sits on the House Interior Appropriations subcommittee, earlier this year inserted language into an appropriations bill that required Pima County to provide evidence of more regional cooperation in its conservation plan before a roughly $850,000 payment to the county would be made.

The money was the third payment of a three year appropriation that helped the county pay for costs associated with developing the SDCP.

Kolbe gave his motivation for inserting the language into the bill in an e-mailed statement from his Washington press office. "In 1998, the Pima County Board of Supervisors began a conservation planning effort to address land use issues in our communities. While this issue impacts virtually everyone in Pima County, there are diverse ideas in the region on how growth and conservation should be addressed.

"Nevertheless, the community recognizes that intelligent planning for Pima County's future benefits all of us. No one benefits from our current situation: a day-to-day struggle to resolve these issues in a piecemeal fashion with the courtrooms being the final battleground. Most of us believe there has to be a better way.

"Everyone would agree that securing and stabilizing natural resources for our children's future is a necessary goal whether the interest is in ranching, sensible growth, the preservation of our desert ecosystem and wide open spaces, or recovery of listed species."

Campbell said Kolbe's intent was pretty clear to the county.

"The message from Congressman Kolbe was pretty strong about looking for partnerships. I think what it signals is that, in the future, when the county is looking for land or conservation funds or whatever contributions from the federal government … that not only is a regional planning effort better to conserve a species, but it is going to be more successful in getting money."

Huckelberry said it was his belief that the cooperative agreement with Marana meets Kolbe's requirements and that the $850,000 should be released to the county.

If Marana had failed to received the FWS grant, the county had planned to give Marana the $240,000 needed for its plan from the $850,000 federal appropriation.

Marana will use the grant money to help pay for, among other things, a planning consultant, a biological inventory of the planning area, a biology team to conduct surveys and, interestingly, a facilitator for the working group meetings.

The other members of the town's working group are: Mike Anable, state land commissioner; David Mehl, president of Cottonwood Properties, which is the developer of Dove Mountain, a large master-planned community on the southwestern range of the Tortolita Mountains in Marana; David Goldstein, an official with Diamond Ventures, the developer of Continental Reserve in Marana; Scott Stitelar, president of Sky Ranch; Luther Propst, executive director of the Sonoran Desert Institute; and Craig Miller, Southwest director for Defenders of Wildlife.

In the town's grant application, the town submitted letters of support for its conservation effort from Mehl, Miller, Goldstein, Propst and Campbell, but also from the chairman of the House of Representatives Co-mmittee on Resources, James V. Hansen, Arizona Congressman Ed Pastor and Patrick Graham from the Nature Conservancy.

Marana's steering committee will meet in private, Hein said, partly in an effort to avoid some of what has bogged the county's process down.

The county's steering committee has more than 80 members and the public committee meetings can at times be unwieldy and raucous affairs.

Hein, along with the other working group members contacted for this story, were cautious in their statements as to whether Marana's approach will be more effective than the county's.

"I think nobody's been rewarded for being overly optimistic," Hein said about the conservation planning process to date. "I think the county's been scrutinized for laying timelines out that turned out not to be obtainable. This is a very complicated, very charged issue. There hasn't been a successful model yet. A lot of eyes are on (Marana's) process and the product."

Campbell was the most optimistic about the group assembled by Hein.

"I do have the feeling that we can have consensus and come up with a plan," Campbell said. "Most of the people on that committee are solution-oriented people. I don't think it's necessarily going to be an easy process. Because of the conservation planning that the county has been engaged in the last three and a half years the people that are going to be on the Marana steering committee are more up to speed."

The goal of Marana's planning group is to create a document that identifies which areas in the town are in need of preservation to protect endangered and threatened species and which can be developed.

"I think (the most significant aspect of Marana's effort) is trying to get some rationality into where and what preservation is appropriate and is important, and a better definition as to what the regulatory structure is going to be," Mehl said.

Mehl's Dove Mountain development in the Tortolitas is in the heart of pygmy owl habitat. Mehl has been at the forefront of developers willing to work with the Fish and Wildlife Service, other ecological groups and Marana to provide land for conservation in exchange for the right to build in the owl's habitat.

Hein, though, points out that the town's effort is not a plan for dealing with just the pygmy owl, but several endangered and threatened species, including the western burrowing owl; the lesser long-nosed bat; the California leaf-nosed bat; and the Sonoran Desert Tortoise. Overall, the county has identified about 18 species in need of some measure of habitat protection within the town's planning area, according to the town's grant application.

Moreover, the plan is being approached in such a way that it will take into consideration habitats for endangered or threatened species that aren't currently in the town, but could show up some day.

Of particular concern, Hein said, is the restoration of the Santa Cruz River. The restored river, complete with mesquite bosques, cottonwood trees and the like, may attract endangered species which don't use the river in its current, channeled, denuded condition.

At stake for Marana is the ability to build a modern metropolis out of farm and ranch land. The town has plans to build hundreds of millions of dollars in roads, bridges and other infrastructure in the next 20 years, some of which is either in habitat for endangered and threatened species, or has the potential to be.

That infrastructure will be needed to support a population that could exceed 100,000 by 2025.

Hein said he will call the first meeting of the working group before the end of the year.

Huckelberry, when asked if he had any advice for Marana in developing its plan offered, "Just get in and start working and don't believe that everybody is going to walk away happy. Never happens. Hasn't yet," he said.

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