Escape stress with visit to Pinetop-Lakeside

A pair of horses graze in a meadow near Hawley Lake on the White Mountain Apache Reservation near Pinetop-Lakeside.

Environmental groups have no constitutional right to demand grazing leases on state land even when they outbid ranchers, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

In a brief order, the justices upheld an appellate court ruling rejecting a challenge to the legality of the procedures used by the state Land Department to determine who gets to lease state land. The justices gave no reason for their decision.

Tuesday's order most immediately benefits Galyn and Roxanne Knight who lease about 6,200 acres adjacent to property they own near Springerville. The ruling leaves undisturbed the decision by the Land Department of accept their bid of 40 cents per acre per year even though WildEarth Guardians said it was prepared to offer more, saying it would have resulted in an extra $79,344 over the 10-year period

It also throws a permanent hurdle in the path of environmental groups who hope to use their resources to put stretches of rangeland off limits to grazing.

Attorney Tim Hogan said Tuesday's ruling likely ends this case, as seeking U.S. Supreme Court review is likely to prove fruitless.

Hogan said there may be a new way for environmental groups to press their case the next time a similar issue arises: File a claim in federal court that Arizona is violating the Enabling Act, the federal law that allowed Arizona to become a state in the first place in 1912.

Arizona got 10 million acres of land when it became a state; more than 9 million acres remain.

Those lands are held in trust for various interests, notably the state's schools, and the Arizona Constitution requires that they be leased to the “highest and best bidder at a public auction.”

In this case, Hogan said, the agency never even opened the bid by WildEarth Guardians, instead determining that the ranchers would be better stewards of the land. Maria Baier, who was land commissioner at the time, accepted recommendations of a hearing officer that the Knights had an overall superior offer.

In its ruling last year, the Court of Appeals acknowledged that requirement for leases to be made to the highest and best bidder, and that leases not made in “substantial conformity” with this requirement are void.

But Judge Kent Cattani said state law allows the land commissioner not to take bids if one bidder's right or equity on the lease outweighs an offer of additional rent. He said that meets what the Arizona Constitution requires.

Looking specifically at Baier's decision, Cattani said she considered the ability to protect the land.

The Knights, Cattani said, monitor the land daily, with at least 10 people who live within eight miles of the property. By contrast, WildEarth indicated the land would be monitored once every two weeks.

Cattani said the property has sand, gravel and timer, includes “irreplaceable Native American ruins and fossil beds” and has been the target of illegal dumping and looters. The judge said the record shows that the Knights have better ability to monitor and protect the land, which they had leased for 28 years.

Hogan, seeking to overturn the appellate ruling, argued that the constitutional requirements to take and open bids are mandatory, and all that trumps the statutory authority given to the land commissioner.

He also said that, if nothing else, requiring the Land Department to open the bid from WildEarth would have given the agency the opportunity to ask the Knights if they were willing to pay more. That, he said, never happened.

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