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Forest Guardians v. Wells

Citation: 30 ELR 20565
No. No. 1 CA-CV 99-0258, 4 P.3d 1054/(Ariz. Ct. App., 05/05/2000)

The court holds that the state land department was justified in rejecting conservationists' applications to lease grazing land for nongrazing conservation and recreation purposes. The lands at issue were subject to the Arizona-New Mexico Enabling Act (Enabling Act), which requires the affected land to be held in trust for the common schools of the state. State laws require the land to be classified for the purpose of leasing and then used for the purpose for which the land is leased. If an applicant wishes to use the land for another purpose, it must request a reclassification.

The court first holds that the state land department was justified in rejecting the conservationists' applications to lease grazing land for nongrazing purposes. Because of the limitation on the use of grazing lands, acquisition of a grazing lease with the intent to prevent grazing in order to promote conservation and restoration is not permitted. The issuance of a lease for conservation is not precluded under the relevant statutes; the statutes preclude only the issuance of a grazing lease for conservation or recreation purposes. The conservationists' proposed use of the lands fall within the commercial classification, and they were urged to pursue commercial leases, but declined to do so. The court next holds that the reclassification provisions further the goals of the Enabling Act and benefit the school lands trust, therefore, applicants for leases must adhere to those provisions. If nongrazing uses are treated as grazing uses, leases potentially could be obtained for less than the fair market value of the actual use of the leased lands, which would be detrimental to the trust. The conservationists argued that the commissioner's obligation to achieve the highest and best use of the land required acceptance of their applications because they offered more money than other applicants. However, the record before the court does not contain evidentiary support to reach a legal conclusion that nongrazing constitutes the best use of the land at this point. Moreover, the highest use of the land, in terms of economic revenue, cannot be ascertained from the record. Although the conservationists offered to pay a rental rate higher than that of any other current grazing applicant, they conceded that they did not know what the commercial lease rate would be because neither an application to reclassify nor an appraisal to determine such a rate has been pursued in this case.

A dissenting judge would hold that the state land department's rejection of the conservationists' grazing lease applications frustrated the Enabling Act's mandate that trust land leases go only to the highest and best bidder.

The full text of this opinion is available from ELR (37 pp., ELR Order No. L-219).

Counsel for Plaintiffs
Jennifer B. Anderson
Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest
1840 E. River Rd., Ste. 207, Tucson AZ 85718
(520) 529-1798

Counsel for Defendants
Theresa M. Craig, Ass't Attorney General
Attorney General's Office
1275 W. Washington St., Phoenix AZ 85007
(602) 542-4266