Range Wars

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

"I defy anyone to say this landscape has been harmed by grazing," says Peter Warren as he drives State Route 83 south toward Sonoita.

Warren looks like an environmentalist -- he's got the beard, the spectacles, the granola wardrobe. And he talks like one, too -- biodiversity, wildlife corridors -- except when he talks about ranching.

Warren is a field representative for the Arizona chapter of The Nature Conservancy, and his job is to lobby the landowners here in southeastern Arizona to preserve the open spaces on their ranches.

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.
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.
Kieran Suckling's Center for Biological Diversity was a casualty in the range war.
Paolo Vescia
Kieran Suckling's Center for Biological Diversity was a casualty in the range war.
The San Rafael ranch house now belongs to the Arizona State Parks Department.
Michael Kiefer
The San Rafael ranch house now belongs to the Arizona State Parks Department.
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.
Les Corey, head of TNC's Arizona chapter.
Paolo Vescia
Les Corey, head of TNC's Arizona chapter.

It's an unusual Southwestern landscape: rolling prairies with waist-high grass, still brown from the dry winter. Unlike some Sonoran Desert ranch lands, it doesn't have visible scars from grazing. Congressman Jim Kolbe has proposed a National Conservation Area to protect the region, and Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt has proposed federalizing the state lands here to keep the State Land Department from selling them to developers.

Time is running out. Tony magazines in Tucson, just an hour away, are filled with real estate ads for ranchettes near Sonoita and Patagonia, just to the south, and with cover stories about transplanted New Yorkers and Californians and their neo-Western, not-so-little houses on the prairie. It's easy to imagine the grassy valleys filled with Troon-style, densely packed development within a few years.

Warren imagines a brace of red-tile roofs and theorizes that such development would fragment habitat and block wildlife corridors.

"If we want to keep this big landscape connected -- the corridors between the mountains, across the valley bottoms where all the fragments and state lands are -- we've got to look to approaches to protecting and preventing subdivision and development throughout the whole landscape," he says.

Unlike most environmentalists, Warren thinks that keeping ranchers in business is part of the answer. It's an institutional belief at The Nature Conservancy, one that raises tempers elsewhere in the environmental movement, especially in Arizona, where mainstream and radical environmentalists think that having no cows is better. The conservancy politely downplays the split; its environmental adversaries do not.

The Nature Conservancy "didn't used to be this wanna-be cowboy faction," says Nancy Zierenberg from Tucson-based Wildlife Damage Review. "It's very blatant now, a whole blatant move toward conserving the cowboy myth."

"Classic East Coast guys who go gaga over the American cowboy," says Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity, an East Coast guy who didn't.

They and the Sierra Club and Forest Guardians would stamp out ranching altogether, which, by Nature Conservancy reasoning, would set off a domino effect of suburban sprawl.

"If some of these groups are successful at getting rid of grazing on public lands, there's a number of ranchers it will put out of business because it cuts the ranch down to the size where it's not sustainable," Warren continues. "They'll be faced with the only choice left, which is selling the private lands of the ranch. And the only people out there who are in a position to buy those lands now are developers."

On this recent drive, Warren is headed toward the crown jewel of the conservancy's recent conservation efforts, San Rafael Ranch, 22,000 acres of southeastern Arizona grasslands on the Mexican border and essentially surrounded by the Coronado National Forest. He's meeting with a fencing contractor to talk about conservancy plans to string barbed wire to keep the new owner's cows out of the Santa Cruz River, which bisects the property.

Late in 1998, TNC bought the ranch from the cash-strapped family that had ranched it for more than 100 years, then turned around and sold the southernmost chunk of it to the Arizona State Parks Department to manage as a natural area.

TNC also sold the Parks Department a conservation easement on much of the rest of the property. Conservation easements are also called PDRs (purchase of development rights), and the concept is a cost-cutter: rather than buying the property outright, it means buying a deed restriction stipulating that the land can never be subdivided or developed. PDRs are all the rage, a principal tool of land trusts from coast to coast.

At the end of February, TNC sold the rest of the San Rafael property to a rancher willing to care for the land according to the terms of the easement.

And TNC allegedly made a profit on the deal.

All of which raised eyebrows in the environmental community: the easement was purchased with Heritage Funds, money that by law is set aside from state lottery proceeds to pay for certain programs of the Parks Department, Game & Fish and other departments. These funds were earmarked for acquiring natural areas, and some environmentalists argued that purchasing a deed restriction was not the same as purchasing property.

Arizonans would be kept off land paid for with public funds because it would still be private land, even if millions of Heritage Fund dollars had been spent to preserve it. And worst of all, there would be cows on land that was supposed to be kept in a natural state. Cows are not native or natural to Arizona.

"Why should the cattle have more access to the land than the taxpayers of Arizona who paid for it?" asks Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club.

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.

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.

"It was gut-wrenching," says Bob Sharp, who prefers not to comment on the final transaction other than to say, "It was the best possible outcome -- other than that we got tossed out."

Peter Warren had been in touch with the Sharps for years because TNC recognized the property's ecological value. He also served on the committee that advises the Parks Department on natural areas.

When the Sharps began shopping for a deal that would allow them to sell a conservation easement to relieve their financial problems and still keep them on the land, they went first to the Arizona Game & Fish Department and then to the Parks Department.

The time was right.

In 1997, the State Auditor General published a report that was highly critical of the Parks Department. Since 1991, the department had been receiving $1.7 million a year from the Heritage Fund to acquire natural areas and another $440,000 to operate and manage them. But very little of the money had been spent, and the account had grown to $8.8 million. Furthermore, the department was inappropriately using the management monies to fund other positions, according to the Auditor General.

The Auditor General suggested that the agency get busy staffing a natural-areas program and buying property, among other things (like finally opening Kartchner Caverns), or it could be shut down.

Bill Rowe, who served on the State Parks Department advisory board and is also former president of the Arizona chapter of The Nature Conservancy, says the money was deliberately hoarded so the department could accumulate enough cash to buy a significant property.

But Matt Chew, who was recently fired from his post as head of natural areas for the Parks Department for writing an essay critical of the department published in the Boston Globe, chalks the surplus up to mismanagement and to reticence on the part of the board to actually buy any natural areas.

According to Chew, the money earmarked for management and operations was spread all over the department's budget. He says some of the natural areas the department purchased were severely mismanaged. He cites as an example the department's Sonoita Creek natural area, which the state bought in 1993. The problem: the department bought one side of a creek, but it hasn't been able to keep the cows on the other side from mucking up the riparian area and crossing over to park property.

"San Rafael Ranch we stumbled into," Chew says, "and we were lucky as hell to protect something that was our highest priority. We'd just been fumbling around miserably since 1991."

In January 1998, the Parks Department announced that it was setting aside $6 million for the purchase, and by early summer it seemed that all of the details were hammered out. The department would purchase a portion of the ranch outright and buy a conservation easement on the rest. Then the Sharps pulled out suddenly, spooked, according to Peter Warren, by how much they would have to pay in corporate and personal capital-gains taxes. They put the ranch on the market for the outrageous price of $24 million.

That's when The Nature Conservancy rode to the rescue and structured a deal. In late 1998, it bought the entire corporation from the Sharps for $11 million. Then, using a since-closed federal tax loophole, TNC declared the corporation to be nonprofit, thus sidestepping the corporate capital gains.

Immediately, TNC sold the southernmost 3,600 acres of the ranch to the Parks Department, including the landmark ranch house. TNC kept the remaining 18,500 acres but sold the state a conservation easement on all but 1,000 of those acres. The total price to the state for the deeded land and the conservation easement was $8.6 million, nearly all of the accrued natural-areas money. TNC planned to keep a conservation easement on the remaining 1,000 acres that could someday be turned into a bed and breakfast or dude ranch, should the new owners find that environmentally friendly ranching alone wouldn't pay the bills.

Humphreys and Lowell came along in September 1999 and bought the deed-restricted 18,500-acre ranch from TNC. The deal closed at the end of February for an undisclosed sum, although it appears the price may have been close to $4 million. TNC still had about $2.4 million to recoup, along with legal fees of more than $100,000 and about $15,000 in interest per month. Humphreys acknowledges that the deal was somewhere in that range and concedes that TNC probably made a small profit on the transaction. TNC will not confirm the figures.

Humphreys expects to run a profitable ranch operation as well as hold the land as a real estate investment, figuring that the value of the land will appreciate even with the conservation easement.

At first, the rest of the environmental community was upset that Heritage Funds earmarked for acquiring property were mostly acquiring deed restrictions on land that would not be open to the general public. The Sierra Club and the Western Gamebird Alliance, a hunters' organization, protested loudly to the media and the Parks board.

Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biodiversity concedes that conservation easements are a useful tool. But he wonders if the Parks Department paid too much.

"With this deal they are establishing a precedent where we are going to drain our environmental budget rapidly," he says, "or we're not going to be able to do anything with conservation."


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.

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."

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."


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.

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.

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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