Quarter of a Century of Open Space Preservation

by Dr. Billie Orr, Mayor Pro-Tem, City of Prescott

As citizens of Prescott and the surrounding communities, we are blessed to live in an area where folks have long valued and preserved special spaces and historic buildings for generations. Look no further than our amazing Yavapai County Courthouse Plaza and downtown Prescott to understand how historical preservation has been a cornerstone of our culture. However, preservation has reached far beyond brick-and-mortar buildings in our beautiful downtown.

Prescott’s Commitment to Land Preservation

The City of Prescott has long recognized the value of land preservation and encouraged outdoor activities with our parks, recreation and extensive trail system. Let’s revisit some milestones in preservation of special outdoor spaces. Long before the term “open space” was coined, our City participated in “natural parkland” preservation including Strickland Park, Acker Park and complex land exchanges to secure Storm Ranch parcels north of Watson Lake and Granite Dells Ranch parcels north of Willow Lake.

In the 1990s, the City received a federal grant for one of the few rails-to-trails projects in Arizona, thereby creating a linear park through the Granite Dells now known as the Peavine and Iron King trails. Today the Iron King Trail is 14 miles and is an extension of the Peavine from Prescott into Prescott Valley. The 5.2-mile Peavine begins south of Watson Lake and extends to 89A.

These historical trails follow the old Santa Fe Railway corridor that connected Prescott, the territorial capital of Arizona to the vast territory. In 2004, Prescott Valley and Prescott held a joint grand opening of Prescott Valley’s Iron King Trail at Entro (aka Prescott & Eastern Junction) in the Granite Dells where the two railroads connected. Today there is a historical marker showing an engine passing through the Dells at the Point of Rocks located on the Peavine about 200 yards from the intersection of the two trails.

Another preservation milestone was when the City entered into a long-term renewable lease with Prescott Creeks in 1995 establishing the 126-acre Watson Woods Riparian Preserve along Highway 89 and Granite Creek. The riparian habitat had been severely degraded due to over-grazing, illegal dumping, firewood cutting, as well as sand and gravel extraction during the mid-20th century. Michael Byrd, Executive Director of Prescott Creeks and 1996 graduate of Prescott College, continues to be devoted to his senior project. Crediting the partnership with the City for the restoration of the riparian forest, Michael says, “Prescott Creeks, a local not-for-profit organization, has been pleased to work with the City of Prescott at Watson Woods Riparian Preserve for over 25 years. We’ve viewed the successful partnership, management, and ecological restoration at the Preserve as a great example of working together to balance ecological goals with broader community goals. We look forward to the next 25 years of collaboration.”

Open Space Designation

In 1998, the City created the Trails and Open Space Coordinator position, which was filled by Eric Smith, whose excellent documentation I am referencing for this article. In addition to the Granite Dells, Thumb Butte is another beloved iconic land formation in our City. Folks may wonder how the City was able to prevent houses and buildings from developing on Thumb Butte. That same year, Prescott partnered with Central Arizona Land Trust to purchase lots on the face of Thumb Butte. Today the Trust still holds the conservation easement.

Another milestone was when Prescott voters approved the purchase of Willow and Watson lakes for $15 million from the Chino Valley Irrigation District with the passing of a bond issue paid by property taxes. These beautiful lakes not only provide excellent recreation and ecotourism opportunities, they are also crucial to Prescott’s water supply and water conservation efforts.

The Peavine became a National Recreation Trail in 1999, and Prescott developed and adopted the Prescott Open Space Plan. Sam Steiger, the colorful and outspoken, five-term Arizona Congressman, came home to Prescott, became mayor and advocated for open space acquisitions. In 2001, Mayor Steiger was the driving force to add open space and extend the 1-cent sales tax.

Recreation Services Director Joe Baynes remembers that, “Sam Steiger kept his mayoral campaign promise of securing 32 acres of property below Thumb Butte, and along with fellow elected officials jump started strategic open space acquisitions in the Granite Dells.” Thus began the extensive land preservation purchases in the Granite Dells.

The purchase and preservation of open space in our City continued for the next two decades. Prescott purchased or acquired with grants and gifts from developers over 3,800 acres. We have spent over $34 million of taxpayer dollars in these acquisitions. This does not include the many millions for improvements to the parks and open space parcels.

Credit must be given to organizations and individuals committed to acquiring funds for open space. Clearly, Prescott’s beloved Elisabeth Ruffner, who passed away this past March at the age of 99, had a tremendous impact on preservation of historic buildings and open space. Elisabeth founded the Open Space Alliance. George Sheats, volunteer coordinator for the Over the Hill Gang and former chairman for Open Space Alliance says, “Elisabeth Ruffner was a positive visionary for Open Space Alliance, balancing optimal community outcomes to accomplish the best for all sides.”

Historically, other groups that made significant impact on land acquisition and preservation are the Prescott Mountain Bike Alliance, Yavapai Trails Association, Prescott Alternative Transportation, Prescott Creeks, Central Arizona Land Trust, Prescott Audubon Society, Trust for Public Land, Granite Dells Preservation Foundation and the Over the Hill Gang. We are grateful to all of these organizations for their dedication.

Where are we today?

In 2018, our Prescott City Council voted in favor of purchasing 160 acres in the Storm Ranch area of the Granite Dells. Today 6 miles of Storm Trails have been constructed in that additional open space by the Over the Hill Gang. This addition brings the total trails within the City’s Mile High Trail System to over 100 miles. Recently our current Council partnered with ECOSA Institute for an educational trail into a 47-acre conservation area in Granite Dells near Willow Lake. These are amazing achievements by a City with only 43,000 citizens. In addition to the thousands of open space acres secured within our community, we are blessed to be adjacent to over 1.25 million acres of the Prescott National Forest.

Today there is much discussion about Arizona Eco Development’s (AED) request for annexation into the City of Prescott. Many folks who hike, bike and ride the Peavine and Iron King trails in the Granite Dells are surprised to learn that while the trails are public land, the adjacent property is privately owned by AED. As an optimist, my cup is always half full, and I sincerely believe there is tremendous opportunity within the challenge of the AED annexation request.

Currently, the AED application shows that AED has set aside significant open space elements (public and private). We are pleased to see that the iconic Point of Rocks is in the AED Public Open Space. However, there is more work to do, and we must definitely continue to negotiate with AED, a local development company.

As folks can see from all that has occurred over the past four decades, the City of Prescott is committed to and has managed to acquire phenomenal public lands for our citizens. I hope and pray we can continue this path of respect and collaboration and that the “quality” of the open space will take priority over the “quantity” of acres.

We can all agree there are many advantages for Prescott citizens and the developers to annex in the City rather than to develop in the County. In addition to controlled, managed growth, the development must be built to Prescott standards with sewer connectivity and municipal water that will allow the City to reclaim and recharge water. That’s huge for our environment and water conservation. We do not need more unmetered wells with “straws” in our aquifer or failing septic systems polluting our creeks and lakes.

However, there must be a win-win for the City of Prescott and AED. We simply are not there yet in our negotiations. The AED annexation application is currently being reviewed by City staff and will likely move to the Planning and Zoning Commission in June. This will be an opportunity for citizens’ voices to be heard.

My personal goal for public open space in the Dells is a “Granite Dells Park and Preserve” owned, operated and maintained by the City of Prescott with hundreds of acres accessible to everyone. I would love to see the City partner with other organizations such as the Highlands Center and Prescott College to create a state-of-the-art Interpretive Center teaching about the uniqueness of our spectacular Granite Dells.

For me, the Point of Rocks, the crown jewel of the Granite Dells, is non-negotiable. Mayor Greg Mengarelli recently wrote, “We continue discussions with property owners to bring hundreds more acres under City ownership and management.”

We ask that our citizens stay connected, be patient and informed as we continue the negotiations to get a win-win for Prescott.