Ranching is a controversial topic, with strong opinions on each side. Most conversations seem to divide ranching from environmentalism. But what if there was a happy medium? What if ranchers are actually the best stewards of our land?
Drought used to be the biggest issue our historic grasslands faced, but with all the different goals for public land today, it has to endure much more. Border issues, erosion, fire management, conservation and recreation are all part of the equation now. And the grasslands have been disappearing for years as towns, roads and irrigated agriculture are added to the landscape.
Ranchers, public agencies and conservationists all worry about the decline of grasslands. For ranchers, healthy land supports healthy herds. And for conservationists, urban sprawl and fragmentation of the land have been found to be more detrimental to endangered species than the low-impact activities of ranching. But the pressure for ranchers to sell is great.
"One way to protect these species is to try and protect ranchers," says Richard Knight, a professor of conservation biology and ecosystem management at Colorado State University. "Keep families on the land, working the land, grazing appropriately. It just so happens that if done well, if done right, that also gives us conservation of species of concern."
Ranchers care about the land as well, and not just because healthy land begets healthy cows. "It's about the health of the landscape," points out Nathan Sayre, department chairman and associate professor of geography at the University of California, Berkeley. "It transcends ranching."
The Malpai Borderlands cover about 800,000 acres of private, federal and state land in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. The area is roughly triangular in shape, with Douglas, Ariz., to the west, Antelope Wells, N.M., to the east, and Animas, N.M., to the north as the points of the triangle. The borderlands includes the San Bernardino Valley, the Peloncillo Mountains, the Animas Valley, the Animas Mountains and two wildlife refuges.
The area is both politically and biologically diverse, with many stakeholders. The Malpai Borderlands Group is a nonprofit organization started by ranchers in the area to bring the parties together. They work closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including the Forest Service; the U.S. Department of the Interior, including the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service; the Border Patrol; state agencies, including Arizona Game and Fish; and nonprofits like the Nature Conservancy.
And southwest of Tucson, about 610,000 acres of open land is practically in our backyard. The 50-mile-long Altar Valley stretches roughly from State Route 86, the road to Ajo, to the U.S.-Mexico border, and contains the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. It is also the home of the Altar Valley Conservation Alliance, a collaboration of ranchers, environmental groups and government organizations. Inspired by the Malpai Borderlands Group, the alliance started in 1995.
"Environmental groups and ranchers have the same goals, but the language can be divisive," says Sarah King, program director for the alliance. Her husband's family has owned a ranch in the valley since 1895. "The goal is to bring people together and share the same language."
Most ranchers have owned their land for several generations, making it both their livelihood and their heritage. "I know there are different opinions, but if we didn't care for the land we would be out of business," King says. "In a nutshell, taking care of the land takes care of our livelihood, but the King family has been here since 1895, so of course it runs much deeper than that."
Bill McDonald, executive director of the Malpai Borderlands Group, notes a similar pattern in his organization. Several of the ranches in the borderlands have been family homesteads since the early 1900s. "Ranching is something you do because you love it," he says. "No one is out here doing this to make money, and taking care of the land is part of that."
King notes that her organization is called the Altar Valley Conservation Alliance, "which says a lot about what folks out here are interested in."
The impetus to form the Malpai Borderlands Group came in 1991 when a wildfire started near the Malpai Ranch. Several ranchers encouraged state and federal agencies to let the fire burn until it reached a natural fire break of creosote bushes because it was not endangering structures or people and would in fact greatly benefit the grasses in the area.
For ages, fires have been part of a natural process that helps rejuvenate grasslands. But in the 1980s and early 1990s, state and federal agencies spent a lot of taxpayer money on fire suppression. And over time, the grass cover began to disappear.
Reintroducing wildfires into the ecosystem has become a shared goal of ranchers and conservation groups. Both sides see the necessity of this natural process for the health of the landscape.
When the fire near the Malpai Ranch was suppressed, it inspired ranchers to come together to create a fire plan of their own. They outlined the boundaries of each ranch, stated their preferred burn control measures, and brought their plans to the government agencies involved in managing the land.
Instead of balking at the idea, the agencies embraced it. "I was surprised," McDonald says. "They were excited to actually get something done on the ground, which is why they went into those jobs in the first place."
The Malpai Borderlands Group has worked with the Nature Conservancy, the Arizona State Land Department, the New Mexico State Land Office, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service to safely introduce prescribed burns in several places. These burns have helped the scientific community better understand grasslands ecosystems while invigorating the landscape at the same time.
Now, the Altar Valley Conservation Alliance is working toward conducting prescribed burns in the valley. Grants from Fish and Wildlife have allowed the alliance to create five different prescribed burn plans for the area. The grants also will cover erosion control projects to be done before the fires are set.
Safety concerns are paramount. "We don't have an obligation to burn if the conditions aren't safe," King says. "We can save the plans for later grants if necessary." The burns would also serve as valuable training for firefighters.
Cooperation between the agencies, ranchers and conservation groups has also helped several other projects get off the ground. Many ranchers now use wildlife-friendly fences and water tanks that also support wildlife.
But distrust of ranchers by some conservation advocates flared anew when a jaguar was spotted in the Malpai Borderlands. Finding an endangered species on ranch land often leads to federal oversight—which can greatly interfere with ranch activities—but when area rancher Warner Glenn spotted the jaguar, he immediately brought it to the attention of the Malpai Borderlands group.
"We have no secrets here," McDonald says.
"We don't mind if the land is labeled jaguar habitat," he continued. "It's what happens after that. Advocacy done for jaguars is done by people that don't want humans on public lands. It's a way to get their foot in the door to effect action that does nothing for jaguars, but impacts someone's livelihood or main source of recreation."
The Malpai Borderlands Group has been helping ensure the survival of several endangered species for years. A group of Chiricahua leopard frogs was discovered in the Magoffin Ranch stock tanks in 1991, and the Magoffins have been caring for them ever since.
At first the Magoffins wondered if they would be forced to cease ranching activities. But the group came up with a plan. "Instead of shutting down the ranch, which was keeping the frogs alive, we worked with the agencies to create space for them," says Anna Magoffin. She points out cement water tanks surrounded by cattails and grass, where the frogs dive under the water when humans approach. The Magoffins drilled wells to provide the water for the frogs, and as a side benefit the wells have given the Magoffins a greater source of water for ranching needs.
The Magoffin Ranch is also a protected site for a species of pincushion cactus that has been found only on a single hillside within the ranch boundaries.
The Malpai Borderlands Group has signed a "safe harbor" agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service that provides legal protection to a landowner who creates habitat for an endangered species. "We're trying to show others how easy it is to get a win-win situation," McDonald says.
Erosion is another contributor to grassland deterioration. When the monsoon hits, the flooding carves away at existing channels in the earth, removing vital topsoil and preventing grass from growing.
The Altar Wash started out as a wagon trail that began at the south end of the valley, but over time it has become a deep and wide channel. Much of the moisture that falls on the valley is carried away by the wash and its tributaries.
"One of our big projects is to heal this," King says.
Bill Zeedyk and Van Clothier have been erosion control consultants for both the Altar Valley Alliance and the Malpai Borderlands Group. Their method, called induced meandering, involves placing rocks gathered from the surrounding area in specific ways to redirect or reduce the flow of water. Water flows over the rocks and brings sediment with it, which fall into the pockets between the rocks. Over time, the pockets are filled, building up topsoil and allowing grasses to grow once again.
Zeedyk and Clothier have also written a book about their method, Let the Water Do the Work: Induced Meandering, an Evolving Method for Restoring Incised Channels. With their help, ranchers have managed to fill several small channels, increasing vegetation and controlling erosion by using materials found nearby.
The Malpai Borderlands Group has also worked closely with the Nature Conservancy. McDonald points out that by advocating as a group, with ranchers and conservationists on the same side, each side gains an advantage because each can open doors for the other.
"Everybody involved has essentially decided that it's more important for the group to be successful than it is for each of them to have it go exactly the way they want it," says Peter Warren of the Nature Conservancy. "We can all succeed much better in the long run if we can find a way to work together."
Not only has the Malpai Borderlands Group brought the ranchers together with the public agencies, it has also brought the agencies together in a way they wouldn't have otherwise. As federal and state budgets are slashed, it becomes more important for the agencies to seek help from nontraditional sources. "They were told to do more with less, and are finding they can do less with less," McDonald says.
The Altar Valley Conservation Alliance has had similar success working with agencies and conservation groups. "The partnership helps us get through a lot of the bureaucratic work and get things moving," says King, the program director. "We already know the agency crowd, so the door is open in the first place."
"In general, (these groups) are always a positive," says John Windes of the Region 5 branch of the Arizona Game and Fish Department. "They are thinking ahead."
Windes said he recognizes the hurdles ranchers face, and admires them when they are able to move toward a sustainable product.
"It's not for everyone," Windes says. "It's happening in pockets. I'd like to see it grow further, but it's not the way to go for all ranchers."
Game and Fish recently purchased a ranch in the San Pedro Valley that it will release back to the rancher, and is working on a habitat program with the Agriculture Department's National Resources Conservation Service to reach out to ranchers and facilitate conservation efforts.
Both the Malpai Borderlands Group and the Altar Valley Conservation Alliance are working to ensure that open land stays open.
The MBG is protecting land from development by purchasing development rights from private landowners and turning the properties into conservation easements. These easements are a legal agreement between the landowner and the MBG that ensures that the land cannot be developed even if the property changes hands. They also protect the MBG's right to sue if necessary.
The MBG doesn't go knocking on landowners' doors. It waits until someone wants to sell easements to them before getting involved. About half of the MBG land is covered by easements, a feat that took 20 years.
The Altar Valley has something similar with the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, a voter-approved program put in place in 1998 that helps preserve vast areas of open land in Pima County. Ranching is supported under this plan because it is considered a low-intensity use of the land. The valley is listed under this plan as one of the open spaces that define Tucson's urban boundary.
Under the SDCP, the county purchases ranch land, puts it under conservation easements and opens the ranch to working ranchers, usually the original owners. The plan also calls for monitoring areas where conservation is a concern, including the Altar Valley.
But Pima County might have to do more to ensure that Altar Valley remains protected.
Kinder Morgan, an energy company based in Texas, wants to put a 60-mile pipeline through Altar Valley to provide natural gas to a Mexican client. This new route runs right next to sensitive land in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. Construction of the pipeline and aboveground facilities would disturb 815 acres.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates the interstate transmission of natural gas, oil and electricity, is putting together the environmental impact statement for the project. An EIS outlines the effects a project could have on soils, water resources, vegetation, wildlife and cultural resources. FERC officials have also toured the area with members of the Alliance, which opposes the pipeline. The Altar Valley EIS is expected to be issued this fall or winter.
The FERC has already noted several issues regarding the pipeline. Although the pipeline would run next to the refuge instead of through it, the pipeline would fragment the surrounding land, something both ranchers and conservationists are trying to avoid. It also would disrupt wildlife corridors, increase erosion and increase the influx of invasive species.
And because prescribed burns cannot be done around pipelines, those would be put to a halt.
Officials also say a pipeline would provide an easy path for drug smugglers from Mexico to follow into the U.S.
The Alliance supports placing the pipeline along State Route 286 because that route is already established and would reduce the negative effects of the pipeline.
King, the Alliance's program coordinator, says its members believe that the Altar Valley should remain open land and not become a utilities corridor between the U.S. and Mexico. "Why are we letting another country dictate what happens in Arizona?" King asks.