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Friday, March 1, 2024 | Back issues
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Eminent Domain Case Pits County Against Feds, Eco-Ranchers Against Off-Roaders

TUCSON (CN) - In a case that could influence conservation easements across the nation, Pinal County appears to have prevailed in Superior Court condemnation proceedings intended to maintain a road that crosses the biologically diverse San Pedro River. While the county says the road is necessary for emergency access, the eco-friendly ranching couple who own the property say a county supervisor is pushing the action to benefit illegal off-roaders. more

The county targeted Paul and Sarah Schwennesen - who run the grass-fed beef operation Double Check Ranch near the San Pedro River - as defendants along with the Nature Conservancy in a Jan. 30 request for an injunction to keep open the river crossing on their property.

The public has used the road under a temporary easement after a nearby county bridge washed out in 1993.

In 1996, the Schwennesens sold development rights to the parcel - which includes a portion of the San Pedro riparian corridor - to the Nature Conservancy. The organization transferred the conservation easement to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in 1997.

Last summer, in an attempt to curtail environmentally destructive activities along the river, Paul Schwennesen gave the county notice that he planned to end the temporary road easement. In January Schwennesen built a rock and gravel barrier to prevent vehicular traffic from crossing the streambed.

The Pinal County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution in early February asserting county ownership of the road, and followed it up with a condemnation action.

Superior Court Judge Robert Carter Olson - a former county attorney - allowed the county's condemnation to proceed at a Feb. 14 hearing, and separated the Schwennesens and the Bureau of Land Management as defendants.

The Schwennesens allege that Supervisor Lionel Ruiz, who lives in the tiny community of Dudleyville, is acting to benefit constituents who use the crossing to get access to unregulated off-road vehicle recreation areas on the other side of the river.

Although only four residences lie opposite the small settlement, the county claims that closing the crossing will create "dangerous and life-threatening" situations by blocking emergency crews.

But the Schwennesens say their closure exempts emergency access, and that the county rejected a deal to allow public access across the river less than 4 miles north on a road owned by mining company Asarco.

"The county intends to maintain a road which is destructive to the riparian habitat in favor of four-wheelers," Sarah Schwennesen said. She points to state statistics showing that registered off-road vehicle use spiked 300 percent in the 1990s, indicating that unregistered use has likely climbed as well.

The county claims that forcing the road open represents the "greatest public good," and also cites cost as an issue in the land appropriation.

While the Schwennesens expressed surprise that the Nature Conservancy apparently has bowed out of the issue, they say that the Bureau of Land Management appears to be with them in maintaining the closure.

And a new player has entered the field: the Center for Biological Diversity cited two instances of unauthorized road construction in a complaint sent this month to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Center alleges that the county's activities in the area are harming the federally endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher, a migratory songbird that makes its home in San Pedro river forests.

The Schwennesens said they believe the Bureau of Land Management will re-block the thoroughfare within six weeks.

The pending showdown between county and federal agencies has implications that reach beyond this rural area.

"The larger picture is about the future of conservation easements as a tool for maintaining open space," Paul Schwennesen says. "They've been billed, especially to ranching communities, as 'saving the West.' Ranchers can stay in business, and they don't have to sell to developers."

Schwennesen said that if such easements "can be pushed aside by any local authority," they are not worth much. As open space is squeezed by growing populations across the nation, the outcome here could have far-reaching ramifications.

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