CAMP VERDE – The notion of a trade that would turn nearly 160 square miles of land in the upper Big Chino into separate but contiguous tracts of Forest Service and private land was discussed long before Fred Ruskin was born.
Divided up into a vast checkerboard, built of 1-square-mile sections, the property known as the Yavapai Ranch, 30 miles north of Prescott, is the last Arizona remnant of a federal policy from the 1800s that gave railroads alternating sections of land as part of a lucrative development agreement.
By the 1950s most of Northern Arizona’s checkerboard had been made contiguous in a huge trade between what was then Southwest Forest Industries and the Forest Service.
A few years prior to the trade Ruskin’s family combined five checkerboarded ranches north of Prescott to make the Yavapai Ranch. Discussions began during the time of the SFI trade over trading off its disjointed parcels and combining them to everyone’s advantage.
It wasn’t until Congress intervened and passed the Northern Arizona Land Exchange and Verde River Basin Partnership Act of 2005 that a path was opened.
Among the properties contemplated in the trade were a parcel in Clarkdale, which was subsequently withdrawn, and several hundred acres in Camp Verde.
But from the beginning, Ruskin insisted the Forest Service was not going to pick the appraiser from among the pool of appraisers it repeatedly uses, believing those appraisers were unduly beholding to the Forest Service and would not give him a fair shake.
It is an issue that has never been resolved.
A year ago, Ruskin proposed building a wind power generation farm, scattering 80-some wind turbines across nearly 40 percent of the Yavapai Ranch’s checkerboarded sections.
But the Forest Service objected, stating that as long as the trade remained viable they would not allow road and infrastructure easement across public land.
The objections brought the question of the land trade to a head.
It was then that Ruskin asked, once again, for congressional intervention, this time getting Congressman Paul Gosar’s staff to mediate a meeting between him and Forest Service officials.
In an interview last week, Ruskin said it was at that meeting that he told the Forest Service he didn’t think the trade was viable.
“We told them we were done with the exchange. They had wasted too much time refusing to negotiate on the appraiser. We told them the original deal would be impossible to do at this time,” Ruskin said.
“Many of the communities that were involved have either done something different or they are broke. What may have been a good idea eight years ago did not make sense today.”
An exchange of letters following the meeting officially killed the land trade and Ruskin has been told by the Forest Service that he is free to apply for road and infrastructure access for the wind farm.
“I wrote them a letter saying it was simply not doable at this time and I was not going to pursue it any more. They wrote me a letter saying they are withdrawing from any elements in the exchange. They actually dropped it. They took the step,” Ruskin said.
In the meantime, Ruskin said the wind farm is still in play, but so much time has elapsed that the federal tax credits making the project financially viable will expire by the end of the year.
“We are waiting to see what Congress does this fall. The project could even come without it, but it certainly would be furthered or made easier if the tax credits came back,” Ruskin said.
Ruskin said his family must push forward with opportunities that would allow development of the ranch but still keep most of it open. 0
“It has been our goal all along to retain public access,” he said. “The wind and solar project remains a priority if it is economically feasible. It is still my preference. It is still considered one of the best wind sites in Arizona. But if it doesn’t happen, we need to be looking at alternatives.”
Last month Ruskin sent a proposal to Yavapai County, outlining a 6,500-home planned area development on the ranch (see related story) that will take advantage of new county codes designed to eliminate lot splits and create more open space, by allowing developers to cluster home sites.
“For now we are working on a land use plan. I don’t think the market is ready for the land to be developed. Whatever we do we are looking to do it right way. And we think this plan has advantages on almost every level.”
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