Range Wars

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

The Common Ground Roundtable came up with the notion of stewardship trusts, a series of assurances to ranchers that they could hang on to their state leases in exchange for exemplary ecological care, or stewardship. Roundtable participants and conservancy staffers were prominent on committees advising Governor Hull's Growing Smarter Plus legislation. But in the end, the stewardship trust did not make it into her final bill.

PDRs did, but the legislature did not provide a way to pay for them.

Corey has since written op-ed pieces in the daily newspapers criticizing the Growing Smarter Plus Conservation Trust for setting aside too little state trust land, most of it more scenic than ecologically significant. He lamented the time wasted by TNC and others in advising the governor's people with no result.

The wide-open grasslands of southeastern Arizona.
Paolo Vescia
The wide-open grasslands of southeastern Arizona.
The wide-open grasslands of southeastern Arizona.
Paolo Vescia
The wide-open grasslands of southeastern Arizona.

He hasn't supported the Sierra Club's Citizens' Growth Management Initiative, telling New Times in February, "We're not into a one-size-fits-all approach to managing growth." But more recently, he suggested that his board might take another look at backing the initiative.

His counterparts in other environmental groups waver on the concept of conservation easements, arguing that they might place too much emphasis on agriculture.

"If the Sierra Club was behind conservation easements, I'd be more comfortable," Suckling says.

By TNC reasoning, it's cut and dried.

As TNC staffer Andy Laurenzi says, "There is no other economic use of private land in Arizona, with very minor exceptions, other than ranching and real estate development."

The Common Ground Roundtable may have been an earnest attempt at finding compromise between ranchers and the environment. But in many ways, it deepened the rift.

Both sides feel they hold the responsible solution for land use. Both sides argue for open space.

"If you've been in the ranching business for 120 years and you're still in business, then you're pretty good at preserving open space," says Doc Lane, a spokesman for the Arizona Cattle Grower's Association.

Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club says that her organization chose not to get involved in the Roundtable.

"The feedback I got was that it was pretty much the same old thing," she says. "The ranchers were complaining and asking for more subsidies. It was not an especially productive way to spend our time."

Late in 1998, the Roundtable released a "white paper" on preserving open space. It talked about the decreased viability of ranching, not only because of the cost of operations, but because of the Endangered Species Act and the "rash of lawsuits designed to remove cattle from the land."

It was the "last nail in the coffin," says Bahr.

Part of the problem was the resonance of words left over from the Wise Use anti-environmental movement of the 1980s and '90s. But just as the environmentalists were spooked by buzz words like "stewardship," the ranchers were insulted by the word "subsidy."

"Words are laden with all kinds of meaning," says Andy Laurenzi, TNC's point man on the Roundtable. "If you start using words like subsidy, you're going to quickly be in a place where you're not going to have much communication going on."

He thinks a moment. "Every single component of our life in the United States is subsidized in some fashion," he continues. "We don't have a free market. I don't see that there's anything wrong with saying ranching is both an economic enterprise as a use of the land and a cultural component of our landscape. It's something we want to preserve, and in order to do that we have to provide financial incentives."

Or perhaps not. The Sierra Club and several other environmental groups signed on to a letter crafted by Kieran Suckling asking for a list of ranchers who had actually been put out of business by lawsuits or the ESA.

"The Nature Conservancy is allowing itself to be used as a shield against the growing public pressure to reform public grazing practice on federal and state lands," Suckling says.

Then he says what's really on his mind.

"What I've seen from The Nature Conservancy, because they want to work with the ranchers, they're willing to go very far down this bullshit Wise Use path and sign on to a lot of crap because they think they need to do that to work with these people."

"We are not making a judgment of whether grazing is good or bad," says Les Corey. "We are trying to look at these landscapes in a practical way and say what is it going to take to secure these landscapes. There are landscapes today in grasslands where ranching is compatible."

That's up for discussion, but Roundtable or not, it's not being discussed, because of the inflexibility of both sides. Both claim the other won't talk.

As TNC's Andy Laurenzi says, "If you've made up your mind that this is bad and there's nothing anyone is ever going to say to convince you otherwise, what's to talk about?"

Contact Michael Kiefer at his online address: michael.kiefer@newtimes.com

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