By Julie Wiessner
Concerns over the continual purchase of Arizona lands by the federal government has led State Senator Chester Crandell, R-Heber, to speak out regarding the loss of revenue over taxable lands. According to Crandell, “The federal government can buy land any time they want and losing private land in Arizona affects our tax base.”
Crandell is speaking of the latest efforts by the National Park Service to expand Petrified Forest National Park near Holbrook.
In 2011, the National Park Service purchased more than 20,000 acres of private land to expand the park boundaries and, more recently, announced plans to acquire several ranches east of the park from the Conservation Fund.
When the federal government buys private lands in a state, it offers some remuneration in the way of a Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILT) to states that have lost that taxable land.
However, in the June 19 edition of The Tribune-News, it was noted that the PILT program was recently reduced and Navajo County’s portion was $1,417,672, or $34,302 less than the previous year’s payment.
Sequestration is blamed on the reduction. The PILT payment, according to Navajo County Finance Director James Menlove, was a small amount of what the county could collect if that federal land were taxable.
As Crandell pointed out, “In a state where only 17 percent of the land is in private hands, any sale of private land in Arizona to the federal government raises new concerns. When a federal land grab also jeopardizes economic development and jobs, it causes grave concern.”
Crandell called The Conservation Fund, a national organization dedicated to buying private land to set it aside for conservation, “A classic straw-buyer scam.”
He explained that in January of this year, the fund purchased the 4,200-acre McCauley Ranch from local owners and is now preparing to sell it to the federal government so that it can also be included as part of Petrified Forest National Park. Crandell noted that the park’s expansion comes at the expense of local schools and public safety since federal acquisition of the land removes it from the property tax rolls.
“In the past 10 years these ranches have paid tens of thousands of dollars in taxes that funded local schools and Northland Pioneer College, as well as public safety and criminal justice activities. The park’s expansion takes those taxes off the rolls, and eliminates the jobs and economic activity that was occurring, all of which has a direct impact on the quality of our education and safety of our residents.”
Crandell also voiced his concern that the expansion may complicate the development of potash mining in the area.
“In addition to reducing funding for our schools and public safety, the expansion potentially threatens hundreds of jobs by jeopardizing long-term plans for potash mining in the area,” he said.
Speaking of his concern for the area’s unemployed, Crandell said, “Our people were hit hard when the Catalyst Paper Mill shut down last year, several hundred people lost their jobs. Many are still out of work and the potash mine would find an available skilled workforce.”
That concern may not be an issue, as last month Passport Potash received approval for nine new exploration permits from Arizona State Lands, adding 4,703.66 acres of State Trust Land to Passport’s land package. These lands had previously been closed to development due to the proposed expansion of Petrified Forest National Park.
All nine holdings are within the proposed expansion boundaries of the park, as authorized by Congress in 2004. This will open the subsurface estate of the land to mineral exploration, but will not disturb the surface.
Continuing his line of thinking, Crandell said, “If a few thousand acres were purchased by the feds in a state in the Midwest or New England, it wouldn’t raise an eyebrow, but here in Arizona, with more than three-fourths of our land already off-limits for development, it’s a big deal.
“Our tax rolls keep shrinking, our schools keep losing money, and our local governments find themselves with less revenue to pay for the public safety and criminal justice services that our residents deserve and expect.”
He describes this as another blow to states’ rights, noting, “Arizona is losing control of its lands.”
“This issue goes back to 2004, when Senator John McCain led the charge for the Petrified Forest National Park Expansion Act. That laid the groundwork for more private land to be swallowed up. I don’t think someone representing the interests of Arizona should be complicit in facilitating more land to be lost to the federal government,” Crandell concluded.
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By Julie Wiessner