Range Wars

Tolerance of ranching puts The Nature Conservancy at odds with the environmental community

It's a debate that permeates TNC's relationship with its more radical environmental colleagues.

The rest of the environmental movement is quick to confront -- and to litigate. The Nature Conservancy prides itself on collaboration but can't seem to collaborate with its fellow environmentalists. So the land-use debate has devolved into a game of cowboys and environmentalists.

The Nature Conservancy philosophy argues that ranchers are a last line of defense against developers; that if ranches fold, there will be no use for the land other than residential use, which breaks up the landscape and taxes the water supply.

Peter Warren, The Nature Conservancy's man in the field.
Paolo Vescia
Peter Warren, The Nature Conservancy's man in the field.
Ross Humphreys recently bought San Rafael Ranch from The Nature Conservancy.
Paolo Vescia
Ross Humphreys recently bought San Rafael Ranch from The Nature Conservancy.

Many environmentalists don't buy that argument. They say that TNC is sleeping with the enemy. A few wags have even printed up satirical bumper stickers that read, "The Nature Conspiracy: Servicing America's Ranching Industry." As further send-up of TNC's oak-leaf logo, the sticker shows a cow munching on an oak leaf.

The Nature Conservancy organized a study group, dubbed the Arizona Common Ground Roundtable, that was supposed to bring together the ranching and environmental communities. TNC invited the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity to participate, but those groups declined.

For years, an alliance of about 20 Tucson environmental organizations has met weekly to discuss endangered species and development issues. TNC is a no-show.

TNC has also stayed away from the Citizens' Growth Management Initiative, the Sierra Club counter to the governor's Growing Smarter Plus legislation.

"The Nature Conservancy is not typically an advocacy group," Les Corey, the organization's Arizona director, says in its defense.

But its environmental antagonists think TNC has become an advocate for ranching.

TNC staffers even talk about "the ranching lifestyle" and about maintaining the Western culture. The more radical environmental faction counters that, increasingly, the only folks who can afford that lifestyle are millionaires who have made their money elsewhere and can afford to be hobby ranchers.

Peter Warren even wrote a letter of support for one of those millionaire ranchers involved in a lawsuit with the Center for Biological Diversity.

"They've veered off course," says Sam Hitt from the Santa-Fe based Forest Guardians.

"They live in the real world," says Ross Humphreys, who purchased San Rafael Ranch from TNC.

It's a range war for the 21st century.


"I've got a love-hate relationship with The Nature Conservancy," says Humphreys.

He and his wife, Susan Lowell, hold not only the most recent conservation easement set up by TNC, but they hold the first as well. In 1983, they bought a ranch near Baboquivari Peak, near the Mexican border southwest of Tucson. The ranch had been in Lowell's family for generations, and when they could no longer afford to run it, they sold it to The Nature Conservancy, which later sold it to Humphreys and Lowell, with a legal document they tapped out together on a typewriter.

Humphreys and Lowell are Arizona natives. He owns a small publishing company in Tucson. She is a well-known children's author whose books include The Three Little Javelinas.

Humphreys has quarreled with TNC in the past, notably in a dispute involving fences on the Tohono O'odham reservation just west of his Baboquivari Ranch, a dispute he thought the conservancy should have taken a stand on but didn't.

That didn't keep him from entering a new deal with TNC, however. Last September, he fell in love with the history and the rolling grasslands of San Rafael Ranch, and he thought he could turn a profit running cattle on it.

There are two things he notes about TNC: Its staffers know what areas should be protected; then they drive a hard bargain as real estate brokers.

"What The Nature Conservancy is the absolute best at is buying land and trading in large parcels of land," he says. "They're top businessmen. You've got to have your dukes up all the time."

Because of its isolation and its climate and the good care by its former owners, San Rafael Ranch probably has a higher concentration of threatened plants and animals than any other property in the Southwest.

It's home to four endangered species -- the Gila topminnow and the Sonoran tiger salamander; and two plants, the Huachuca water umbel and the cannella lady's tresses orchid. Several other species found on the ranch may soon be listed as well, including the Chiricahua and lowland leopard frogs, a fish called the Yaqui chub and a number of birds.

Locals say Mexican gray wolves have been spotted here, and so have jaguars.

And, as TNC's Peter Warren points out, it may be the best remaining example of Southwest grasslands. "This is a great example of how a well-managed ranch can be very compatible with virtually the entire complement of sensitive species in the area," he says.

It's also a great example of TNC's ability to close a deal.

San Rafael Ranch had been in the Sharp family for more than 100 years, and it was comprised mainly of a Spanish land grant. But the Sharps' estate planning had not been sufficient, and when Florence Greene Sharp, the matriarch of the family, died in the mid-1990s, her four children had to mortgage part of the ranch to pay estate taxes. Two of the children wanted to sell the ranch and take their inheritance; two wanted to stay on the land.

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