Thursday, May 18, 2006


A businessman named Charles Sotelo wants to buy an abandoned rail corridor running from the Mexican border to Benson, Arizona. The BLM had intended to turn the track into a nature trail, because a good portion of it lies along the San Pedro River:

The San Pedro is the last surviving desert river in the southwest. Congress recognized its importance in 1988 with the creation of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. It provides the most intact habitat in the world for the endangered Huachuca Water Umbel and is prized for its outstanding diversity of migratory birds, wildlife and cottonwood-willow forest.
Although Sotelo has no experience in railroad operations, his aim is to use the tracks to transport tanks of sulfuric acid into Arizona from Mexico. In support of this humanitarian endeavor, he and his investors have claimed they'll upgrade the tracks.
According to government documents, Sotelo's group pledges nearly $4 million toward upgrading 76.2 miles of track from Benson to the Mexican border. But much behind this proposal is murky, including the fact that Sotelo has refused to identify Sonora-Arizona's investors....

Sotelo himself seems a bit touchy about the subject. When I called his Bisbee office, the proprietor of Valle Realty and Development refused to discuss his railroad plans by phone. When I pressed, he hung up.
This seems to be SOP for Sotelo. In 2001, he "asked Cochise County to rezone about 40 acres of a 50-acre parcel of land east of Naco from transitional residential to heavy industry." A number of experts voiced concern about Sotelo's plans, and noted that his plans for transporting hazardous materials didn't meet federal requirements. Sotelo later withdrew his plans, after officials noted that they were "vague," and "gave him 30 days to define exactly what type of hazardous materials would be warehoused or transported under his proposed development."

Not long after that, Sotelo tried to do an end-run around regulations by claiming that a proposed 1,775-foot rail line to the Mexican border was a line relocation and didn't require prior approval. The request was denied.

Sotelo claims his railroad will result in economic growth and opportunity. But then, so would a broad trail running along "the last surviving desert river in the southwest," especially if it's home to birds that are hard to see elsewhere. As usual, the dichotomy between economic well-being and conservation is a false one.

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