Range Wars

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

The Nature Conservancy was founded in 1951 and has become the 14th largest charity in the United States. It boasts more than 1 million members nationwide and had net assets last year of $2.2 billion.

The Arizona chapter has an equally impressive balance sheet showing assets of $34.5 million, including eight land preserves ranging from the high Sonoran Aravaipa Canyon to the desert riparian area of the Hassayampa River to the alpine meadows of Hart Prairie in Flagstaff.

Even after 100 years of grazing, the San Rafael grass grows waist-high.
Michael Kiefer
Even after 100 years of grazing, the San Rafael grass grows waist-high.
Andy Laurenzi, TNC's point man on the Arizona Common Ground Roundtable.
Paolo Vescia
Andy Laurenzi, TNC's point man on the Arizona Common Ground Roundtable.

The chapter is headquartered in Tucson near the University of Arizona. More than half of its 27,000 members are in the Phoenix area, but 99 percent of its work is outside the Valley. Arizona executive director Les Corey calls this "reallocating resources."

Corey, 49, was raised on a farm in New England. He was educated as a biologist and served as head of Audubon chapters in Connecticut and New Hampshire; he's been with The Nature Conservancy for 14 years.

He says Arizona is a nice place, but notes that "nice places tend to attract new capital until they're no longer nice."

Certainly it is development that fuels the Arizona economy.

"Here, I feel we're being franchised to death," Corey says. "All of what's special and historic that we should be celebrating is often being bulldozed over. There's a real sense of loss. We're losing it. We're not in control. Economic decisions are driving decisions, and ultimately that's going to compromise the livability of the state."

It already has, or we wouldn't be entertaining the dueling growth-management strategies proposed by the governor and the Sierra Club, a debate that TNC has entered, though not in the manner that its environmental colleagues would like.

But, as Corey says, TNC is not an advocacy group. What TNC does is buy land to protect it, and, as the environmental ante has been upped in the last 40 years, the organization has changed the way it goes about acquiring land.

"The Nature Conservancy decided several years ago that what we needed to do was go to a plan for our conservation work on a much larger scale," Corey says. "We had to get away from just looking at small units of land. That we really need to ignore the political boundaries and look at nature's boundaries, all across the landscape, across the U.S. as well as the 35 countries we're working in outside the U.S."

That conservation plan looks at various ecological regions, decides which are under stress and identifies threatened species. Then the information is inventoried, mapped and catalogued in a database. In March, TNC's national headquarters announced that it would commit $1 billion to protect natural areas identified in the organization's research. Last week, the Arizona chapter said that it had already raised more than half of the $20 million targeted for "Wild Arizona," its part of the big conservancy plan. It hopes to protect the Verde River and portions of Sonoran Desert, among other landscapes.

This kind of thinking smacks of radical environmentalism. But what troubles other environmentalists is TNC's willingness to work with the folks they consider the primary defilers of the environment.

TNC has developed beach lots in Virginia and entered cooperative ventures with loggers in Maine and Georgia as well as with ranchers in the Southwest, all in the name of collaboration. It has received generous contributions from Shell Oil Company, timber giants Weyerhaeuser and Georgia Pacific and builder Centex Homes. John Sawhill, TNC's national president and CEO, sits on the boards of several corporations, including Proctor & Gamble and Pacific Gas and Electric. All of which makes the environmental community nervous.

"Recently they've built on their good scientific heritage to preserve large areas of land with corridors and buffers as insights of conservation dictate," says Sam Hitt of Forest Guardians. "But that has been seriously compromised by the politics of the day and the need to raise money."

"What's happened recently," Hitt continues, "is that instead of preserving land, they're putting land to economic use. They're grazing land in the Southwest. They're talking about working forests. That might be fine for Weyerhaeuser to do as some kind of kinder, gentler logging. But if that attitude has filtered down to a very large and financially powerful group like Nature Conservancy, then they're not being consistent to their initial mission or they're kowtowing to money."

Nationwide, The Nature Conservancy has promoted the "purchase of development rights." The concept assumes that there is not enough money to buy large tracts of land outright, so why not buy deed restrictions limiting what can be done on private land? Such programs have been pursued from New York and New Jersey to Maryland and North Carolina, to Colorado and Montana and Nevada and Utah, not just by TNC, but by other land trusts as well.

The Nature Conservancy holds 22 PDRs in the form of conservation easements in Arizona, protecting more than 5,000 acres. And it has entered partnerships with government agencies on four other PDRs to protect another 18,000 acres. All of it is ranch land.

"Here you have multigenerational ranchers whose primary activity is their land, who are fighting tooth and nail for not only their lifestyle but to do the right thing on the land," Corey says. "Well, we have to have a certain respect for the people who are on the land. And I have respect for those folks that have been out there for over 100 years trying to do the right thing."

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