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  • This Land is Your Land

    40 Years of Voter-Supported Conservation

    open space mapPart of what makes Pima County so special is the balance we strike between nature and development, as well as the variety of natural parks, historic properties, and outdoor recreation areas within easy reach of the metropolitan area.

     Our land conservation story dates back to the creation of Tucson Mountain Park in 1929, the northern half of which would later become Saguaro National Park.

    However, it was voter support in 1974 for the acquisition of land that would later become Catalina State Park that really kicked off using bond funds as a long-term funding source for land conservation throughout the region.

    As a result of four separate elections, voters tasked Pima County with spending a total of $230 million to conserve our most valued natural and cultural resources. These bonds were sold over time and were or are being repaid with property taxes.

    Pima County takes a conservative approach to debt management, which is reflected in our superior credit ratings. Our bonds are sold with no more than a 15-year payback, which is shorter than typical for municipal bonds.

    By The Numbers:

    40 years of acquisitions

    $230 million in voter-approved bonds

    70,000 acres acquired
    During each of these elections, more than one ballot question included funding for land conservation. Ballot question titles have varied to reflect the types of benefits land conservation provides: parks and recreation; greenbelts; open space; habitat protection; historic preservation; and flood control. Some of these questions also included funding for park improvements, historic building restoration and flood control improvements. 

    The $230 million was approved for the more traditional land conservation activities. To date, this $230 million has resulted in the County’s acquisition of over 70,000 acres.

    Your Tax Dollars At Work

    Your Tax Dollars at Work!

    Chuck HuckelberryBy Chuck Huckelberry
    Pima County Administrator

    Many years ago, I started volunteering with the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society Cactus Rescue Crew as a way to save just a little of the desert. Many of us do our small part to conserve the environment and for some it’s not so small. Since 2008, 18 property owners have generously donated to Pima County over 2,400 acres of important natural areas valued at almost $13 million. All these individual efforts, big and small, are multiplied when a portion of tax revenue from all taxpayers of Pima County is directed at a particular effort. That is what happened after four successful bond elections between 1974 and 2004. Voters approved over $230 million in bond funding for land conservation. As a result, we were able to work with partner organizations, under the guidance of citizen committees and with the support of the Board, to purchase some of the very best of Pima County.

    Over the years, the County’s reasons for conserving important natural areas have grown. After the Federal government’s listing of the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl as endangered in the late 1990s, the future of Pima County’s development of roads and other public facilities, as well as private development projects, became uncertain. But the County and the community responded by embarking on what would become a new trajectory for both conservation and development. Through the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, a successful 2004 bond election and our recently issued federal permit, Pima County’s mountain parks and conservation areas have become a way to achieve multiple conservation goals, including the streamlining of endangered species compliance for public and private development projects. 

    The 2004 bond election also included, for the first time, funding to purchase land to prevent urban encroachment of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base; protecting the viability of the base and, ultimately, jobs. The variety of purposes for which we have invested in land conservation reflects the needs of a healthy and growing community, including the need for a diverse and robust economy.

    In 2014, 40 years after the 1974 bond election, we used the last of the 2004 bond funds to purchase the Painted Hills property, achieving a long-awaited conservation victory in the eastern foothills of the Tucson mountains. The best way to celebrate these accomplishments is to get out and enjoy all that our Pima County parks and conservation areas have to offer. I hope the following pages inspire you to do just that.

    Bond Program Highlights

    tyl Cover
    Pima County’s mountain parks and other conservation areas complement a regional network of parklands that include local, state and national parks, forests, monuments and conservation areas. Properties purchased with voter-approved bonds have resulted in a diversity of new and expanded parks and conservation areas, some of which include:Tucson Mountain Park, Tortolita Mountain Park and Colossal Cave Mountain Park - conserving mountain ranges for wildlife and outdoor recreation.
    • Sweetwater Preserve and Feliz Paseos Park - adding many miles of new hiking, biking and multi-use trails.
    • Cienega Creek Natural Preserve and Agua Caliente Park - conserving flowing water and hot springs.
    • Los Morteros and Canoa Ranch conservation parks - preserving historic and archaeological sites.
    • Buckelew Farm and numerous working ranches - protecting unfragmented open spaces and traditional industries.
    Typically, when the County acquires a working ranch, the grazing leases on State and federal lands also are transferred to the County to be managed for conservation.

    This has resulted in an additional 130,000 acres being managed as part of these ranches. County-owned ranches continue to be operated as working cattle ranches under agreements whereby ranchers provide on the ground stewardship of the properties in return for continuing cattle operations.

    The following pages highlight some of the best natural area parks and conservation areas purchased with these voter-supported funds.

    1974 Bond Program
    1986 Bond Program
    1997 Bond Program
    2004 Bond Program

    Click to open larger map

    Investing in a healthier urban future

    downtown tucsonOur taxpayer investment in land conservation supports a healthy and active lifestyle for our residents and visitors, while protecting the health of our natural environment. But just as important, these investments in land conservation support the health of our economy by creating jobs, enhancing home values and tax revenues, and serving as the basis for streamlining endangered species compliance for public and private development projects. 

    Purchasing land for conservation around the periphery of the metropolitan area also defines future growth areas suitable for urban/suburban development, contributing to a healthier tax base. When State Trust land is combined with privately owned land in Pima County, some 60 percent of eastern Pima County could be developed, given the mandate of the Arizona State Land Department to derive maximum revenue from its lands through sale or lease. But different planning efforts through the years, including the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, have recognized the relationship between the cost of providing public services and proximity to already developed areas. The more that development extends into areas beyond the metropolitan core, the greater the strain on our tax base to support the increased costs of providing infrastructure and services to residents in these outlying areas.

    The following pages show the variety of ways voter-approved investments in land conservation pay off for our residents, the majority of whom live in the metropolitan area. 


    agua calienteWater is the lifeblood of the desert, not just for plants and animals but for the people, too. Preservation of large undeveloped landscapes, such as working ranches and mountain parks, protects our rivers and creeks, replenishes our groundwater, and reduces stormwater pollutants and flood damages.
    • The Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Pima County own and manage considerable acreage in the Cienega Valley watershed, southeast of Tucson. This watershed provides up to 20 percent of the groundwater for the Tucson basin and is also home to two of the few Outstanding Waters of the State, Cienega Creek and Davidson Canyon, due in part to their excellent water quality.
    • Purchasing floodprone land promotes public safety by reducing the potential for flood damages. Residents in unincorporated Pima County within a FEMA flood zone receive a 25 percent reduction in flood insurance premiums based in part on the purchases of floodprone lands; a total savings to residents is estimated at $425,000 annually.
    • As part of Pima County’s Arizona Pollutant Discharge Elimination System stormwater permit from the State, the County reports the number of acres in conservation status. This is considered one of the best management practices implemented by the County to reduce stormwater pollutants.
    • The 2004 bond program alone conserved over 190 miles of rivers and washes throughout Pima County.

    Outdoor recreation and health

    colossal cavePima County’s mountain parks, ranches and other conservation areas offer exercise and recreational opportunities such as hiking, biking, horseback riding, birding, wildlife watching, hunting, visiting cultural and historic sites, and outdoor education. These opportunities to enjoy the outdoors have been shown to promote healthier living, which can also curb rising health care costs. And they are enjoyed by local residents, as well as lots of visitors!
    – In 2012, approximately 80% of Pima County residents reported being physically active, which exceeded both the state and national averages.
    – Over one-third of residents in eastern Pima County live within one mile of a County-owned mountain park or conservation area.
    – Pima County owns and maintains over 140 miles of trails and 27 trailheads in eastern Pima County.
    – It is estimated that over 1.4 million people enter Tucson Mountain Park per year to visit or use park facilities. – Half of these are visitors to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Old Tucson and Gilbert Ray Campground, all located within the park.
    – In a 2014 survey by, mountain bikers voted Pima County’s Sweetwater Preserve number four in the West for most scenic mountain bike trails.
    – 95 percent of Pima County conservation areas are open to hunting. Hunters should check the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s regulations for hunting seasons and open areas.
    – Pima County’s natural resources environmental education program boasted almost 30,000 participants during the 2015/2016 fiscal year.

    Tourism, jobs and economic development 

    starr passIt’s not a secret that visitors are attracted to our unique natural environment, and many of us moved here for the same reason. Travel is one of the most important industries in Arizona and relies heavily on the health of our natural environment and access to outdoor recreation. These “visits” and outdoor activities contribute significantly to our economy by supporting jobs and retail sales in the tourism and outdoor recreation industries, as well as generating tax revenue.
    • In 2012, Visit Tucson found that the top two reasons people travel here are our natural environment and outdoor natural area recreation. Almost 60 percent of visitors reported participating in outdoor desert activities.
    • In 2014, visitors to the Tucson/Pima County region spent $2.2 billion, generating $185 million in tax revenue and supporting 23,000 jobs.
    • In 2001, it was estimated that the economic impact associated with wildlife watching in Pima County supported 3,196 jobs and generated $173.5 million in direct retail sales, $90.7 million in salaries and wages, and $16.6 million in state and federal tax revenues.
    • In 2002, it was estimated that hunting and fishing in Pima County supported 1,187 direct jobs and generated $84.5 million in expenditures, $18.3 million in salaries and wages, and $5.4 million in state tax revenues.
    • During the first seven months of 2016, 87,922 visitors to Colossal Cave Mountain Park generated $910,573 in revenues from cave tours, retail and food sales, and camping.
    • The JW Marriot Tucson Starr Pass Resort is located along the eastern boundary of Tucson Mountain Park. In addition to annual property tax revenues of almost $1.9 million, the resort and the County have a special revenue sharing agreement that generates upwards of $800,000 a year for enhancement and expansion of Tucson Mountain Park.
    • Quality of life factors like the unique natural areas our region has to offer, as well as access to them, make a difference in attracting employers and a strong workforce.

    Streamlining federal compliance for development 

    frogThe overarching vision of Pima County’s Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan (SDCP) is to conserve our natural and cultural resources, while logically planning for continued economic growth. The Multi-Species Conservation Plan (MSCP) is a critical tool in achieving this vision.

    The Endangered Species Act Section 10 permit recently issued to the County in support of our MSCP, provides opportunities to streamline compliance with endangered species regulations in a magnitude that had previously been impossible for our public and private development community. The MSCP and Section 10 permit rely on many of the conservation policies, ordinances and programs already in place thanks to the SDCP, including the suite of conservation lands purchased with voter-approved bonds in 1997 and 2004.
    • County bond-funded conservation areas, plus areas acquired through other funding mechanisms and donations, serve as the mitigation lands needed to offset almost 30 years’ worth of development impacts under the Section 10 permit.
    • The MSCP and Section 10 permit provide regulatory certainty to development projects, as well as save time and money. While our MSCP and recently approved Section 10 permit is unique, a 2014 study of these types of plans in California found “substantial benefits to the business community, providing millions of dollars in savings through reduced uncertainty, time delay and compliance costs.”
    • It will eliminate the need for biological surveys and consultations for certain Army Corps of Engineer permits for private and public projects that may impact threatened and endangered species, which in the past have added months, if not years, to completing development projects.
    • It will also eliminate the need for offsite mitigation associated with threatened and endangered species. In the past, Pima County has paid between $5,000 and $25,000 an acre for such federally required offsite mitigation.

    Enhancing home values and tax revenues

    housing constructionsNumerous studies across the country have shown that land conservation increases the value of adjacent and nearby homes and tax revenues. Just like the size of a home or its respective school district, the closer a home is to protected natural areas is an important amenity that is often reflected in the purchase price. Homebuilders typically charge lot premiums for homes located near or adjacent to protected natural areas.
    • More than two-thirds of Arizonans interviewed agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “If I bought a house in my community, having open space nearby would be a top priority” (Arizona State Parks 2008 SCORP).
    • Almost 60 percent of land in eastern Pima County is either privately owned and paying property taxes or is State Trust land that may be sold for development and often becomes private land via auctions. The County’s purchasing of land for conservation is often criticized for significantly reducing tax revenues by reducing the number of taxable properties. However, repeated studies show that is not true.
    • Applying an acceptable range of 5 to 20 percent of added value based on studies across the country, to the 2,322 single family residences within a half mile proximity of Tucson Mountain Park, results in an estimate of $25 million to $101 million in property value added, as well as a range of $375,000 to $1.5 million in added property tax revenue. More detailed research is needed to refine the range of added value applicable to the Pima County region.

    Management – Past and future

    land managementThese diverse lands do not manage themselves. The lands are challenged like any natural areas are, with issues such as vandalism, irresponsible recreational use, land impacts from illegal immigration and border issues, and effects of our long-term drought and climate change. The types of management activities that have occurred on these properties have been largely determined by the property type, as well as available resources.

    Mountain parks close to town, require a higher level of management, maintenance and improvements due to demands for outdoor recreational opportunities, as well as issues associated with nearby urban areas. As Tucson Mountain Park expanded along its eastern boundary, new trails and trailheads were added, new park rules were put in place to better manage activities like archery hunting, road improvements were made, and studies were conducted to inform wildlife management. Working ranches, on the other hand, continue to be managed by many of the same ranchers that previously owned the property, under agreements with the County.

    Ranch improvements have generally included the conversion of wells to solar, more intensive landscape level environmental surveys, grazing monitoring, installing wildlife water-drinkers and working with the Arizona Game and Fish Department on access agreements and signage for hunters and outdoor recreationalists. The Sands Ranch is soon to become home to a colony of black-tailed prairie dogs and a refuge for Chiricahua leopard frogs, as the Arizona Game and Fish Department works to reestablish them in southeastern Arizona.
    Some of the properties acquired primarily for cultural and historic resources, like Canoa Ranch have seen significant building rehabilitation, adaptive reuse, and interpretive improvements, while others have yet to be surveyed for archaeological sites. The management of floodprone properties sometimes requires demolition of structures and hands-on vegetative management.

    After the considerable wave of new properties acquired as a result of the 2004 bond election, County staff have been familiarizing themselves with these properties through research and field work. More sizeable improvements have been funded primarily with bond funds approved for those purposes, or through grants and partnerships. Over $3 million of external grants have been generated to support management of these conservation lands. Pima County’s former Parks Department has been renamed to Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation (NRPR) and new positions such as a rangeland program manager, conservation biologist, natural resource specialist and environmental educators were added to the staff. We created the Office of Sustainability and Conservation, which includes staff responsible for coordinating implementation of the County’s Multi-Species Conservation Plan and the protection of cultural resources, along with NRPR and the Regional Flood Control District.

    These voter-supported conservation areas have created significant opportunities for our community, but also challenges. They will continue to provide many values to our community and represent a significant investment in the health of our future. In the years to come, Pima County will invite the public to join a comprehensive management planning effort for these lands. After all, these lands are your lands!

    Open Space Timeline

    Click image for a larger view
    Time line

    Outdoor Recreation

    Most of the County's natural resource areas are available for public use. Click on the image below to open a larger, printable map and use key.
    recreational use map

    Interactive map: Over 700 projects completed with voter approved bond funding since 1997

    To get more information about the dozens of open space and preservation bond projects, go to our interactive map and scroll down to the Open Space menu. Each pin represents a separate bond expenditure.
    Completed Bond Project Interactive Map
    Interactive map is supported on Internet Explorer 9 and above (download), Chrome, Firefox, Safari and the most recent tablet and smartphone devices.
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