For the first time, environmentalists have outbid a rancher to gain control of a grazing allotment on state land in Arizona.

The Santa Fe-based Forest Guardians had tried to lease the allotment since 1997. But the state land office repeatedly rejected the applications, saying only ranchers could bid on Arizona’s 8.3 million acres of school-trust land. Then in 2001, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that anyone could bid on the 10-year leases, which cover about 10 percent of the state. The land, granted by the federal government in Arizona’s territorial days, is supposed to be leased to “the highest and best bidder,” with the revenues going to public schools.

The current leaseholder, Ethlyn Telles — who said in her application that she had taken good care of the land and planned “continued restoration” that included cattle grazing — bid $40.66 per animal unit month. Forest Guardians bid $84.40 per AUM, or about $2,000 per year.

Now, the group plans to boot cattle off 162 acres in southern Arizona and restore riparian habitat along the Babocomari River. “This is a historic ruling that signals the end of the livestock industry’s monopoly over state school-trust lands,” says John Horning, executive director of Forest Guardians.

But Rukin Jelks III, whose family has run cattle near Telles’ lease for the past quarter century, says the land will suffer without grazing. “Rest in this type of environment is probably the most harmful thing you can do,” he says. “There’s no soil disturbance, no cycling of minerals and the water cycle isn’t functioning.”