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A RIVER RAN THROUGH ITA TANGLED DEBATE SURROUNDS THE SAN PEDRO RIVER, ARIZONA'S ECOLOGICAL STOREHOUSE

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"It's there for our use, not just to sit idle."
Christine Conte, publicist for the Tucson-based branch of the Nature Conservancy, has heard Post's arguments many times, and it's clear that she's tired of countering them.

"To suggest as he does that we're agents for the BLM is simply untrue," she says. "We are totally private and nonprofit, and no government body controls us. We try to work with all interested parties in any acquisition, and we try to hear all sides of the argument. Anyway, most of the lands we buy are vacant; there are no caretakers, custodians or ranchers to tend to them. We're not in the business of displacing anyone or taking productive land out of anyone's hands. We're in the business of saving some of nature."
Still, the Nature Conservancy has been taking a new tack of late. "Initially, we put too much emphasis on owning land," says director of protection Andy Laurenzi. "We didn't put as much as we should have on using private owners as conservators, using public outreach to encourage what we call voluntary private conservation. If we get the ranchers involved, we're sure to accomplish a lot more good."

But the ranchers aren't biting. Instead, more and more of them are talking of a new Sagebrush Rebellion, demanding that the federal government return land to the states and the states' land to individual owners. Groups such as the Wise Use Movement are gaining membership throughout the San Pedro Valley, and places like Benson's Horseshoe Cafe are filled with antienvironmentalist buzz over coffee and hot cakes. The antirestoration efforts have thwarted some Nature Conservancy projects, including the acquisition of Cooks Lake, a 70-acre cinaga near the San Pedro-Gila confluence.

Most of the ranchers, however, reserve their greatest dislike for the Bureau of Land Management, which has few supporters in Cochise County.

Kathy Suagee, a board member of the Sierra Vista-based Natural Resource Conservation District for the San Pedro, a branch of the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, argues the ranchers' case against the BLM.

"We're heavily involved with soil and river preservation, as much as any other group," she says. "But we have to haggle all the time with BLM acquisition policy--they're just two-faced about it." The NRCD haggled so successfully, in fact, that the BLM was recently blocked from adding 43,000 acres of stream-side land to its holdings.

Wynn Bundy, a Benson rancher and bookseller, echoes Suagee. "I'm ambivalent about restoring the river the way the environmentalists want to," Bundy remarks. "The BLM causes us a lot of trouble. They don't listen to what anybody down here has to say. All ranchers are environmentalists unless they're out of their gourds. We all know that we have to protect the land--we know it better than anybody else, because we have to live and work here. But still the BLM doesn't listen to us."

Dave Krueper, wildlife biologist at the BLM's Sierra Vista office, understands some of the ranchers' concerns, believing them to be the natural product of self-interest. "Our role is changing," he says. "Traditionally, we've assisted local economies in many ways of using the land. But when we declared a moratorium on cattle grazing in the riverbed in January of 1988, we caused a lot of consternation in ranching circles.

"Since then, we've gone out of our way to communicate with ranchers, help put up fences, that sort of thing, and get them to understand that the cattle are causing problems. Still, I think what bothers some people is that our land-acquisition process allows us to pay fair market prices for properties near conservation areas. To a lot of ranchers, that discretion smacks of big government--they think we're throwing around wads of cash just to take land off the tax rolls.

"I'll stand by the policy," Krueper continues. "Judging by vegetation densities in studies we've done--the largest study ever done linking avian change with vegetative change--the small area we manage is, overall, a very healthy riparian ecosystem, certainly the healthiest in the Southwest. We'd like to do even more."
Albert Bamman, the wildlife biologist for the BLM's Gila Resource Area, which helps oversee the river near Winkelman, admits that the BLM has plans that may seem too grand to many longtime ranchers in the San Pedro Valley.

"Our intent when we started the whole acquisition process was to manage the entire San Pedro ecosystem," he acknowledges. "We still want to be the umbrella organization for that, but with presidential administrations that come and go, it's hard to coordinate a program that everyone can live with.

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Gregory McNamee