Range Wars

"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.

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.

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Michael Kiefer