This month I sat down for a talk with Joe Trudeau, founding volunteer and frequent public spokesperson for Save the Dells, about the organization’s five years of advocacy to head off development of 500 crucial acres of the Granite Dells and have it preserved by the City of Prescott open space. The City and the developer, Arizona Eco Development, recently announced closure of escrow on the land transfer, marking the end of that effort.
5enses: I’ve read the local news coverage about the AED deal. What can you add to that?
Joe Trudeau: When we came out publicly in 2018, our proposal was to save 500 acres of the AED annexation in the Dells. Included in the 500 acres were the Peavine and Iron King trails; the Peavine is owned by Prescott and the Iron King by Prescott Valley. We included those because we saw that they were threatened. Those account for 15 acres total. So really what we were talking about with AED’s land was 485 acres, and as of August 24 escrow closed, according to the terms of the development agreement, and 473.7 acres of AED land has now gone into the City's ownership, so that’s pretty darn good.
Some of the big wins there are obviously the open-space acreage in City hands; the developer had proposed five crossings of the Peavine and we got it down to one crossing; the developer had proposed eight miles of new roads in the Dells and we got it down to zero; and they proposed a massive resort right in the rocks, and we got that pushed to the north. So that’s all the good stuff.
One of the biggest losses is the archaeological site out there, which we were not able to protect. This is a very important archaeological site, with significance largely to the Hopi tribe. That last ten acres between 474 and 485 is that swath where the archaeological site is, and the developer wouldn't budge.
The destruction of archaeological sites to make way for new development is nothing new. Every development in Prescott has been doing that for years. It’s unfortunate, but at this point we’ve done everything we can as an organization. So that’s something that I’ll consider a loss. It’s a loss to past cultures we’re not honoring, and it’s a loss to future residents who won’t have the opportunity to visit that site and learn.
When this started there were two parcels of AED land, called the South Annexation and the North Annexation, and through the negotiation process (involving the City, the developer, and two individuals from SD, Amber Fields and our former vice-chair Paula Burr, who did most of the negotiating) it became really clear that if AED was going to give up that land in the Dells, they needed to get a lot of perks. That’s how things grew to include these other parcels of their land, like Section 33, which abuts Prescott Valley, and they were adamant, saying ‘hey, you’re not going to get the land unless we get water rights to this section.’ So the developer got a lot of little bonuses like that, which the regular person on the street doesn't know about.
There was nothing we could do about that. It’s like, you’re negotiating with a billionaire, and if they don’t get what they want now, they’ll just run out the clock, wear us out as volunteers and comeback again in five years with the proposal.
We beat up on the City a lot in the course of this process, but in the end the deal we got, which we think was a fair deal for all parties, would not have happened if the City weren’t willing to play the game. The City could always have squeezed the developer harder and given less bonuses, but they squeezed enough to get a good deal, where the City got what it wanted — the 474 acres in the Dells, another 500 acres up around the airport, the AED surface-water rights to Watson Lake, 375 acre-feet, which is very important — so the City’s getting a pretty good deal. There has never been a development in Prescott where the developer has turned over almost500 acres of the most valuable land it has. So it’s easy to beat upon the City, because it took a long time to convince them of what needed to be done, but in the end they did it, and when Council voted on it a month ago it was unanimous. So that’s a win.
5: Where does the organization go now?
JT: That’s a good question, and that’s what we’re all really deep in discussion about. We’ve accomplished our primary objective, protecting AED’s land in the Dells. We’ve been very effective at shifting the politics here in Prescott, and we now have a pro-conservation City Council — five years ago no one would have ever imagined that. I think the most important thing now is not where Save the Dells goes, but where do the people of Prescott go from here.
I hope the people of Prescott recognize that they can get what they want out of the City and local municipal government. We’ve provided the proof that if you’re organized, if you’re strategic, if you’re reasonable, if you’re disciplined, if you’re not belligerent, if you play a smart political game, you can get what you want. I hope that we are going to empower people to take action, including running for office themselves.
In the beginning we recognized that playing by the typical conservation-advocate handbook — start a 501(c)3 and play nice —doesn't work here. We went up against the good ol’ boy power establishment, and we've given them a good run for their money. We were able to do that because we are a political action committee.
Asa PAC you can promote candidates and come out against candidates — that’s what we did in 2019 with Cathey Rusing, and we promoted the single-shot election strategy (‘vote for Cathey and no one else’),and Cathey won by the largest landslide in Prescott elections history. So not only do you get the candidate that you want, but you send a clear message. It becomes very clear, in looking at the numbers, where public interest lies. That’s the advantage of a PAC: forcing candidates through public pressure and endorsements to come out as either on your side or not. It sends a powerful message to the established power structure here about where the public mindset is.
We set out to do good stuff, and we set out to win, honestly. It was in June 2016, over five years ago now, that we had our first meeting at the old Cuppers coffee house, and there was some chemistry there where basically we were like, hey, we're not screwing around, there have been too many open-space battles that were lost, too much has been taken from the open-space advocacy community that they've earned. We set out to put an end to that, and at this point, we have. We've shifted the tone.
5: These issues will come up again, right?
JT: The established power-players here are still invested in maximization of development. The Central Arizona Partnership is an organization of many names that people would recognize, and they have said, literally, that their goal is to develop every private acre of land in central Arizona. These people are primarily Prescott-region political operatives, developers and business executives. They haven’t gone away, and I guarantee they are already planning on how to shift the Council back.
5: Does Prescott need a continuing political voice for open space?
JT: Yes, it does. I would like the new Mayor, once he's seated and gets his bearings, to create a mayor’s open-space advisory commission, a permanent commission that would have, say, seven members from the community, chartered so that those members have to meet certain criteria, like a scientist, a recreational representative, are presentative from real estate, someone from education, someone from public health, that sort of stuff. That commission would follow through on the City's own voter-approved open-space management plan from 2008, which no mayor has given any attention to.
So no longer would you have the inherently antagonistic relationship between a PAC and the City. Take that advocacy intent and expertise and move it into the City. That group would look at opportunities for the City to acquire new land, take a holistic view of the management of our open-space plans, and provide tools, guidance and assistance to our Parks and Recreation Department, which is top-notch. This commission could look at funding mechanisms — how can we pay for purchasing and managing more open space in ways that are not regressive tax structures that hurt people at the low end of the income scale? We need to embed that sort of open-space advocacy and wisdom into City government.
We will feel successful if we make Save the Dells irrelevant, if we put the power into the City to make decisions on behalf of the citizens.
It’s really easy to make any of these issues become a liberals-versus-conservatives issue, and that’s what we’ve tried very hard to reject. The land beneath our feet, the water that we drink, these are not political footballs, these are the essence of not only our survival, but our common ground; this is what we all share. The idea of the commons has been vilified around here by a lot of people, and that runs completely counter to 90% of the population. There’s a lot of polling out there, and consistently 85-90% of Arizonans want more protected lands, less mining, less cattle grazing, more places for recreation, they want to see more wildlife. There are fewer people hunting and more taking pictures. We need to respond to what the population is asking for. What we've been trying to do in the Dells is provide a core for the growing Quad-Cities region.
Imagine in 20 or 30 years when Prescott, Prescott Valley, Chino Valley and Paulden is two or three hundred thousand people and it’s all one city. This regional park and preserve idea is right in the middle of all that. It’s the commons, our common ground, where everyone can feel a bit of ownership.
5:What's ahead for you personally?
JT: Over the past several years I and my wife Amber, chair of Save the Dells, have sacrificed a lot of our personal time. So we’re looking forward to stepping back substantially — not stepping away, but creating space for other leaders to step up. We’re focusing more on our wellness, getting more exercise, hopefully going on some more vacations. We just had a child, so that obviously needs to be a big focus. We've given a lot to this effort, and we're at a point where we're feeling pretty good about giving ourselves some time back.
Save the Dells Chair Amber Fields writes,
“What I’d like people to acknowledge is that we wouldn’t have got this far if not for a tremendous amount of hard work by our committee, our volunteers, and the regular folks who showed up at events, rallies, and meetings, and of course the people who opened their pocket books to underwrite our campaign. Sure, the City and the developer had to be on board to get this good an outcome, but it’s really us — the people — who made this happen. So, looking forward, we need to keep up this level of engagement and excitement. There is still a lot of work left to do to create a Granite Dells Regional Park and Preserve, and to ensure it’s permanently protected and can’t be sold off by some future Council. I hope that more people decide to contribute time, energy, ideas, and passion the way we’ve been doing for the past five years. It’s the only way to make sure my hometown of Prescott really shines.”
Save the Dells will be hosting an event titled Dells fest 2021 on October24 in the Dells that will include excursions, a mountain-bike ride to the new City acreage, bird walks and other activities. Trudeau says, “The closing of the deal was anticlimactic. We want to provide the climax.”
About Wilkinson Pueblo
The ten acres of AED property on which Save the Dells was not able to win agreement is the core of an archaeological site known as Wilkinson Pueblo, which covers about23 acres in total. It is named for the previous owners of the property, who did some excavation to reveal one pueblo-style room.
Andrew Christenson, archaeologist and curator of Prescott’s Museum of Indigenous People, says that preliminary surveys there indicate that the site probably includes “a couple of dozen structures” likely built and occupied by people of the local Prescott Culture around a thousand years ago.
The site is entirely on private land, but located within the City of Prescott, which as a certified local government is required to follow federal and state preservation best practices. State Historic Preservation Officer Kathryn Leonard confirmed that her office has no jurisdiction over the site and has not received a request to oversee it. The City has no ordinance of its own covering preservation of archaeological sites.
The authoritative sources we talked with all agreed that historic preservation on private land is generally at the discretion of the owner, and that sites of archaeological interest are routinely built over in Arizona. However, before there is any preparation for construction, AED will be required to hire an archaeological firm to develop a mitigation plan that will include excavation of archaeological areas that cannot be avoided. Any human remains or burials encountered during excavation will be dealt with in consultation with tribal representatives.
Readers are urged to refrain from visiting the site, which would constitute trespassing on private land and could cause damage and loss of cultural and scientific assets.