Jeep tours under debate at McDowell Sonoran Preserve

PHOENIX - The McDowell Sonoran Preserve is the jewel of Scottsdale, 43 square miles of pristine desert set aside for the sake of its own beauty.

Scottsdale's other jewel is its tourism industry, which draws visitors -- and their money -- from around the world.

Those two priorities will come into conflict this week as the Scottsdale City Council considers whether to allow jeep tours in a recently acquired part of the preserve.

Since June 1, jeep-tour companies have been barred from an area of the preserve near Granite Mountain that was previously state trust land. Scottsdale bought that land and nearby parcels from the state over the last three years, at a cost of roughly $218 million.

When the state owned the land, jeep-tour operators were able to obtain permits from the State Land Department.

But under Scottsdale's ownership, motorized vehicles are off-limits within the city's preserve.

"This will negatively impact our employees and their families, our vendors and sales-tax revenue for the city," said Doreen O'Connell, who owns and operates Arizona Desert Events tour company.

Jeep-tour companies have asked the city to allow them to operate anyway, fueling concern among preserve advocates about the impact on the natural desert and wildlife.

Scottsdale's vision for the preserve took shape in the 1990s after conservationists formed a land trust to save the McDowell Mountains from development. Twice, in 1995 and 2004, voters approved sales-tax increases to purchase desert tracts for the preserve, protecting the natural habitat and wildlife while allowing non-intrusive outdoor recreation.

The purpose of the land, according to the city's preserve ordinance, is to "establish in perpetuity a preserve of Sonoran desert and mountains" that should "be left in as pristine a state as possible."

The law forbids any public-park facilities but does allow trailheads and other improvements for passive recreation.

What qualifies as "passive" has been a point of contention, with the community often divided between two of Scottsdale's biggest priorities: the preserve and economic development.

The showdown continues as preservationists emphasize the need to protect the land, no exceptions allowed, while economic leaders see an opportunity to preserve and strengthen the city's already-robust tourism industry.

Three options are on the table for the council to consider on Tuesday:

Don't change the ordinance, effectively upholding the ban on commercial, motorized guided tours.

Allow tours temporarily. A trial period from September through May 2014 could require special-use permits.

Amend the city's ordinance to allow educational jeep-style tours permanently.

O'Connell said a "no" vote from the council will force jeep-tour operators out of business.

"This will also affect visitors who are not physically able to hike, bike or horseback-ride into the preserve," she said. "In a way, it is discriminating against these people. We take out elderly guests, families with children and corporate attendees who have very limited time. Without us, none of these visitors will be able to enjoy the preserve that they helped pay for."

Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane and City Council members Linda Milhaven and Dennis Robbins, who make up a council subcommittee on economic development, recommended last week to continue the tours on a one-year trial basis.

Tour operators still need four votes among seven council members Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Scottsdale's McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission, which oversees preserve-related matters, suggested that the council uphold the ban. The commissioners voted May 30 to uphold the city's ordinance as written.

Allowing jeep tours "sets a bad precedent" and "opens the doors to potential use by other motorized vehicles in the future," Commissioner Michael Milillo said.

But Commissioner Susan Wheeler, who supported a trial period, said jeep tours "are stewards of the land probably more than most people."

"They value that desert out there, and they're educating people," Wheeler said.

Robert Frost, a commissioner, suggested the city authorize a temporary permit, which could allow operators to develop a business plan to continue under the ordinance

  Mary Jordan of Wayward Wind Tours told the commission that her company, among three that operated in the preserve, has "taken people out and educated them about the desert so they would understand how important the desert is."

"I spoke to the City Council recently and explained to them there's a man that is 85 years old," she said. "He's dying of cancer, and his daughter wanted to get him out here. And now if there's no motorized vehicles allowed, this man, a taxpayer all his life, would never even be able to go there."

Jordan told The Arizona Republic that operators "only want to use 3.6 miles of the preserve."

"If those roads were never traveled on ever again, the roads would still be there," Jordan said. "We don't go off the road in any shape or form. The misconception is we tear through the desert, but that's not what we do. We're out there educating people on the beauty of the desert and need to preserve it."

Scottsdale most recently paid about $88 million for 6,400 acres of state trust land south of the Stagecoach Pass alignment that encompasses the majority of Cholla and Granite mountains.

The city bought the land in November using a Growing Smarter land-acquisition grant and money generated by two dedicated sales taxes approved by voters.

Howard Myers, president of the Desert Property Owners Association in north Scottsdale, said the preserve is not a park and is "not an asset for anyone to make a profit off of."

Myers, who follows closely issues affecting the preserve, said the city's ordinance is clear: No motorized vehicles, period.

"There are many good reasons for this rule, including destruction done by vehicles, noise and of course visual presence of the vehicles," Myers said.

Myers said that a solution might be to allow jeep operators to partner with people who own horses, carriages and other horse-drawn transportation, since equestrian activities are allowed in the preserve.

Jordan called the idea "absurd." O'Connell said in a letter that Arizona Desert Events is "not a stagecoach-tour company or a horse-and-buggy company, nor do we intend to be."

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