Lawmakers, Agency Spar Over Arizona Recreational Facilities
Jul. 11, 1991
WASHINGTON (AP) _ When U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials view their land at Scottsdale, Ariz., they see neither the lush fairways of the championship golf course nor the ''world class'' equestrian facilities. They see a flood control project.
But a House committee chairman and congressional investigators see a giveaway - federal land generating millions of dollars for commercial operators without a dime returned to the United States.
The congressional General Accounting Office said in a report that bureau officials had no clear policies to follow when they made the no-compensation agreements in the early- and mid-1980s.
The activities approved were of ''the type and scale ... not usually found at public outdoor recreation sites on federal lands,'' the GAO said in a report obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press.
Already operating is the championship golf course where the annual Phoenix Open is held; a municipal golf course and the horse center described in the GAO report as ''world class.''
Also open is Rattlers' restaurant, where the menu includes ''Snake Bites'' (rattlesnake meat); ''Hang 'Em High'' (a two-pound porterhouse steak); an ''S.O.B. Omelette'' (translated: South of the Border) and ''Sweet Fangs'' (cheese blintzes for the ''kosher kowboy'').
Still to come: a theme park with entertainment, shops, a movie production studio, a zoo, lodging and an 8,000-seat amphitheater.
''This is an outrage,'' said Rep. Mike Synar, D-Okla., chairman of the House Government Operations subcommittee on environment, energy and natural resources. ''The BOR (Bureau of Reclamation) has failed the public trust. Unfortunately, BOR has promoted commercialism in the name of public outdoor recreation.''
The GAO did not question the need for the land, which was acquired to hold flood waters to protect the Central Arizona Project canal - which carries water to three Arizona counties. Nor did the GAO conclude that any laws or regulations were violated. The controversy swirls over how the land was developed.
A top Interior Department official, Commissioner of Reclamation Dennis B. Underwood, said bureau officials made the deals when the land was viewed as a liability. He believes the taxpayers received a good deal.
Underwood said that before it was developed, the land was targeted by vandals and the bureau paid for local police protection.
''This was not a federal resource that would attract people to use that facility,'' he said in an interview. ''You had a piece of barren land. There was no great incentive for them to develop right there.
''We needed some incentive to get people to assume that liability. The federal taxpayer is relieved of the cost of maintaining this land.''
Synar, who scheduled a hearing on the land deals later today, said that besides the lack of compensation, restrictive arrangements for the championship golf course made the facility an ''exclusive enclave.''
The course charges an $80 greens fee, which changes depending on the season; allows private memberships and reserves 20 percent of the tee times to guests of the PGA Tour Inc. - which runs the complex - and visitors at an adjoining resort.
''The issue here is not just two agreements,'' Synar said. ''Until the bureau overhauls the entire concessions system, American taxpayers could lose access to thousands of miles of public canals and facilities just as most taxpayers lost easy access to the Scottsdale championship golf course.''
The GAO recommended that the Bureau of Reclamation halt negotiations for any similar deals until policies are written to protect federal interests.
The two-course golf complex and horse center have produced $24 million in gross revenues from 1988-90, the GAO said.
The bureau agreements were signed with the City of Scottsdale, which adjoins Phoenix. The city then contracted with the PGA Tour Inc. to run the two golf courses - fees on the municipal course are $16 - and the K-Lin Corp. to operate the equestrian center and develop the theme park.
Unlike the federal government, the city earns a portion of the revenues from the facilities - receiving $1.5 million from 1988-90, the GAO said.