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Wind farm and/or land exchange? Forest Service awaits Ruskin move on Yavapai Ranch

Prescott National Forest Supervisor Betty Mathews says the Fred Ruskin family needs to decide whether they want to drop out or continue with the largest land exchange in Arizona’s history.

Ruskin, a retired Paradise Valley dentist, is the spokesman for his family that owns the Yavapai Ranch about 30 miles north of Prescott.

Ruskin told The Daily Courier a month ago that he was waiting for the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors’ decision on a huge wind farm proposal before deciding whether he wants to continue with the land exchange.

He could forget the wind farm idea, ask the Forest Service to drop the wind farm project area out of the land exchange, or try to get the Forest Service to accept land into its system that already contains the giant wind turbines, roads and other encumbrances.

The wind farm would be located on an expanse of grasslands that the Forest Service is supposed to acquire through the land exchange that Congress approved back in 2005 after decades of negotiations with two generations of Ruskins. The wind farm was not part of the agreement.

The land exchange would consolidate a 100,000-acre checkerboard of Ruskin and Forest Service land sections. The Forest Service would get about 70,000 consolidated acres while Ruskin would get 30,000 consolidated acres plus other Forest Service lands in northern Arizona.

The supervisors approved a use permit Tuesday for one of the country’s largest wind farm companies, NextEra Energy Resources, to build the wind farm project. It includes 81 lighted wind turbines that are 436 feet tall spread across a 37,000-acre project area, according to NextEra’s map, along with solar power panels. It would effectively landlock thousands of Prescott National Forest acres.

But on Wednesday Ruskin said his family still hasn’t decided what to do. He said he might know more within a few weeks.

NextEra still needs U.S. Forest Service approval to build roads and power lines on public lands.

The wind turbines and associated facilities are located on 19 of the 33 land sections that the Forest Service is supposed to acquire in the land exchange, Forest Service officials said.

That could jeopardize the land exchange itself, Mathews said.

Mathews already denied NextEra’s application for a special use permit to build roads and power lines across the Prescott National Forest. She said the land exchange law does not allow her to approve new encumbrances on the land exchange area.

NextEra Project Manager Matthew Gomes told the county supervisors during NextEra’s public hearing Monday that NextEra representatives met with Forest Service leaders in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 30 about the issue, and it’s “definitely a discussion in progress.”

NextEra officials tried to get Forest Service Associate Deputy Chief Jim Peña to overrule her decision, but Peña declined to do so, Mathews said.

The Ruskins own the land, and they need to tell the Forest Service in writing what they want to do with it, Mathews said.

“They (NextEra) have no authority to be speaking for Mr. Ruskin,” Mathews said.

Ruskin filed suit against the U.S. Forest Service last year, asking the court to order the Forest Service to let the Ruskins hire the land exchange appraisers and other contractors to work on the land exchange.

U.S. Sen. John McCain, who was the major sponsor of the land exchange legislation, said during a visit to Prescott Aug. 22 that he’s sad to see such little progress on the land exchange during the last six years.

McCain said he needs to talk more to the Forest Service before offering an opinion about current issues related to the exchange.

But if someone violates the land exchange law, the land exchange is no longer valid, he said.