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Voters to decide on trust land exchanges to preserve bases

PHOENIX — Voters are once again deciding whether to allow exchanges of state trust land for federal land to preserve military bases.

Supporters of Proposition 119 are especially concerned with the more than 500,000 acres of state trust land near Fort Huachuca, where the Army tests sensitive electronics.

“Something as simple as a garage door within that 500,000 acres could severely impact their operations and possibly force the base to downsize and inevitably, in the future, close,” said Vanessa Hickman, deputy commissioner of the Arizona State Land Department.

The federal government could trade land elsewhere to preserve open space around bases, but the state Constitution requires that trust land be sold or leased, primarily to benefit public education.

Proposition 119, which has support from state leaders and conservation groups, would provide a process for swaps that help preserve military bases.

Voters narrowly rejected a similar proposal in 2010.

Arizona State Land Commissioner Maria Baier, whose department oversees trust land, said the change would give the state other land of equal value while ensuring the future of bases and jobs that rely on them.

“This is a great way to make sure we have great conservation lands available in the state of Arizona, that we preserve our military, which is a $9 [billion] or $10 billion-a-year economic impact in the state of Arizona and a big jobs creator, and also create viable sites for new businesses in Arizona, so it’s good environmentally and economically,” Baier said.

The measure would require a statewide vote on each land exchange. It calls for two appraisals to ensure that parcels in exchanges are of equal value as well as two fiscal analyses and at least two public meetings.

While environmental organizations have opposed land exchanges in the past, Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, said those checks are the reason her group supports Proposition 119.

“The big difference is this one contains the accountability and transparency previous measures did not,” Bahr said. “With state trust lands near military bases, right now it’s really difficult to protect them.”

A group called Yes on Prop 119 registered with the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office had received contributions of $2,000 each from the Fort Huachuca 50, a Sierra Vista group that promotes the base, and the Sonoran Institute, a conservation group.

Proposition 119 has no organized opposition.

Tom Finnegan, a retired Army colonel and co-chair of State Military Affairs Commission, said closures would have a huge impact on jobs around Arizona but especially in neighboring communities such as Sierra Vista, where he resides.

“Fort Huachuca is our industry — that’s it,” Finnegan said. “Everything else is built around it.”

Edward Perkins, a policy analyst for Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, said something that’s new with Proposition 119 is that the business and environmental communities favor the measure.

He said that while the business sector believes the proposition will reduce the risk of job losses, environmentalists like the built-in safeguards.

“The public, too, may favor the ballot proposition for the same reasons, particularly if they are convinced that private land developers are not being handed an advantage,” Perkins said.

“The perception of less-than-equitable deals benefiting land developers is a principal reason why such measures have failed to win the support of Arizona voters in the past.”

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