Range Wars

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

There could be no viable environmental solutions imposed by outsiders, he reasons. A decade of environmental litigation has done little more than polarize rural folk and make them suspicious even of middle-of-the-road groups like the conservancy. Threatening their livelihood has not helped them make friends.

"Ultimately, unless we're successful working in rural communities and keeping rural communities healthy, viable, attractive places to live while sustaining rural landscapes, we're not going to have a chance of saving rural biodiversity."

Les Corey, head of TNC's Arizona chapter.
Paolo Vescia
Les Corey, head of TNC's Arizona chapter.

And yet there is no question that some environmentalist organizations like the Center for Biological Diversity and Forest Guardians would like to use litigation to end grazing on public lands just as they used litigation to effectively kill the logging industry in the Southwest. What they didn't bargain for was the symbolism of the American cowboy as an icon of Southwestern life.

The public could care less about loggers, but it loves cowboys. Besides, ranching has increasingly become an avocation of the superwealthy, people who like to think that beneath their workaday pinstriped suits beats the heart of a cowboy. As the Center for Biological Diversity would discover, those people also have enough money to pay for superior legal firepower.

In 1998, following its usual legal strategy, the Center for Biological Diversity (then called the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity) filed suit against the U.S. Forest Service demanding that it consult with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service over endangered species that may be present on several grazing allotments in the Southwest.

The Forest Service said that it would talk to U.S. Fish & Wildlife, so the center dropped the case, thinking it had won.

But that was not the end of the suit. Josiah and Valer Austin, who lease one of the allotments named in the original suit, were incensed that their leased lands were targeted. They intervened on the side of the Forest Service because they had made a significant effort -- and spent a lot of their own money -- to preserve endangered species, specifically to reintroduce the Yaqui chub to a riparian area on their ranch.

"If it were not for their voluntary actions, the Yaqui chub would not exist in that part of the country," says their lawyer, Michael Rusing.

The Austins, who made their fortune as investment bankers, sued for legal fees and were awarded $57,000 by a federal judge in Tucson.

Suckling was surprised to be sued in the first place.

"One: nowhere in the suit, do we even mention [Josiah] Austin by name," he says. "Two: we sued over every allotment that had endangered species. Three: we never even heard of the guy."

He admits that Austin is "not a terrible rancher because he is so wealthy."

Wealthy enough to seek legal revenge and damages that could cripple an organization the size of the Center for Biological Diversity.

"We don't want other ranchers, other farmers that are really trying to work with ecologists, to say, 'Look what happened to the Austins,'" Valer Austin says. "Had they won against us, it would have been a real blow to endangered species. They've got to be a little more careful who they sue. They've got to look at the people who are really working and leave them out of the suit."

The Nature Conservancy was not impartial. Peter Warren wrote a letter citing the Austins' good stewardship, and that letter was introduced as evidence. The Austins are contributors to the conservancy, according to the group's annual report, contributing between $5,000 and $9,999.

The Center for Biological Diversity felt just as stung as the Austins.

"What's really outrageous about TNC getting involved here is that the case was already dismissed," Suckling says. "The only thing at issue was whether we should pay Austin's fees. Here is an environmental group helping a millionaire's lawyer win tens of thousands of dollars from a nonprofit environmental group."

Still, TNC's emphasis is on environmental collaboration.

In August 1997, Les Corey went to the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy at the University of Arizona, which is dedicated to finding cooperative approaches to environmental problems. He wanted to meet with ranchers who were also troubled by the state's disappearing open spaces. The ranchers were particularly concerned that the state's unbridled growth could persuade public-land management agencies, especially the State Land Department, to sell off grazing land for development. It takes a lot of land to run cattle in this arid climate, so most ranches span a checkerboard of state, federal and private lands. If any component was taken away -- if, for example, the state trust land was sold out from under them -- the ranches would be less viable economically.

The Arizona Common Ground Roundtable emerged from those talks. Its mission, as the multiple puns in its name imply, is to let the public and policymakers know that ranchers are as worried about the environment as anyone.

Not surprisingly, the Roundtable participants discussed conservation easements as a means to slow down the fragmentation of open space by keeping ranchers in business. But there was a problem: Keeping in mind that most ranches are a patchwork of private land and land leased from the state, what happens to the rancher who sells the development rights to his private land and then loses his leased state lands -- to development? His private land would be useless, too small a parcel to ranch efficiently, and deed restricted so that he couldn't subdivide. He could only sell it to another rancher, even if it was no longer big enough to be a working ranch.

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