Buying ecological leverage

Conservationists become land managers in northern Arizona

  • The large meadow of De Motte Park, part of the Kane Ranch, straddles the highway to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon

    Michael Collier photo, courtesy Grand Canyon Trust
  • Bill Hedden

 

On July 14, the Flagstaff, Ariz.-based Grand Canyon Trust and the Arlington, Va.-based Conservation Fund announced that they had purchased an exclusive option to buy two ranches that own or control a massive chunk of canyon and plateau country. The Kane and Two Mile ranches stretch from the Grand Canyon north to Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and from Marble Canyon on the east to Kanab Creek on the west.

The conservation groups must raise $4.5 million to acquire 1,000 acres of private lands and federal and state grazing permits covering nearly 900,000 acres from the Kane Ranch Land Stewardship and Cattle Company. If they succeed, the groups say they intend to continue to operate a working ranch on a portion of the property. But the primary management goal will be ecological protection and restoration, and that will require a significant reduction in livestock grazing.

The ranches and the surrounding public lands include some of the most varied habitat in the West. Much of the Kane Ranch is made up of the sky island of the Kaibab Plateau, which is home to the highest density of remaining old-growth ponderosa pines in the Southwest; it harbors imperiled species such as the northern goshawk, the Mexican spotted owl and the endemic Kaibab squirrel. The Two Mile Ranch encompasses the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, the epicenter of reintroduction efforts for the endangered California condor in Arizona. The Two Mile is also the site of two famous slot canyons — Buckskin Gulch and Paria Canyon. Taken together, the two ranches are considered the best possible habitat remaining in the Southwest for the reintroduction of Mexican wolves.

One of the primary movers behind the purchase is Bill Hedden, executive director of the Grand Canyon Trust. HCN Executive Director Paul Larmer recently interviewed Hedden about the deal, and what it means for land conservation in the West.

HCN: How did this deal happen?

Hedden: Part opportunism and part hard work. Actually, the landowner nearly gave us the ranches four years ago. He withdrew his offer when there was a lot of local opposition, but late last year, the trust and the Conservation Fund started negotiating again. For us, it was very hard to ignore the opportunity of doing something on 900,000 acres dead center in our territory. The ecological diversity of this landscape is amazing. One of our photographers was in the Marble Canyon frying in the sun in the morning, then got caught in a snowstorm up on the Kaibab Plateau in the afternoon.

HCN: Were the local ranchers interested in the property?

Hedden: Several groups of ranchers wanted pieces of the ranches’ grazing allotments. But given the biodiversity in this country and the drought, we didn’t want to see it go to a bunch of smaller operations, all trying to make a living grazing cattle. Keeping it together was our top priority. Our goal is to protect and rest the land and find money to do restoration work. We’ll be doing a scientific assessment of the area to figure out our priorities, but first we’ll reduce the grazing to the minimum allowed under the current federal allotment plans. This will be one of the largest grazing reductions to ever happen in the West.

HCN: What is it like to suddenly be a federal and state grazing permittee?

Hedden: It’s completely different than being on the outside, fighting against the agencies and the ranchers. We’ll now pull out the maps and work together with the agencies to solve problems on the ground.

HCN: Are you ready to be a co-manager of 900,000 acres?

Hedden: We’re on a steep learning curve. We don’t pretend that we can just march in and manage the land better than anyone else. But our goals are different than traditional ranchers. We can manage to improve the habitat for antelope fawn survival or to ensure that there is an adequate small mammal prey base for goshawks and spotted owls; we can manage to ensure that the cows stay out of the lakes on the Kaibab Plateau. And it’s not lost on us that the ranches and surrounding public lands are potential habitat for Mexican wolves. (We) will be more amenable to wolf predation than ranchers in other parts of the state.

HCN: Do you have any sense of how the relationship between permittee and land agency will play out on the ground?

Hedden: I do, from some of the Trust’s experience with grazing leases in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and from some of the issues we have already uncovered in the new project. On Coyote Butte, for example, there are cattle grazing on — and breaking — these fragile rock fins in a wilderness area. The BLM had planned to put a fence down the middle of the fins, but we asked: Why not just remove all the cattle from this particular pasture? The answer was, "Because the last permittee didn’t want to." Well, now this permittee does want to do that.

HCN: So, in a sense, you will be helping the federal agencies protect the land in ways that they should have all along?

Hedden: I think that the land managers often know that grazing isn’t being managed in the best way possible, but there’s always a rancher whose life depends on getting as many cows on the land as possible. The land managers are so rarely in a position to do what needs to happen on the land. Not that we know what to do entirely. I have holistic resource management adherents telling me that removing the cows won’t do anything to improve the land. But at least we will be in a position to experiment and monitor the results.

HCN: Does the Grand Canyon Trust’s move into hands-on land management reflect a larger sea change in the way conservationists work in the West?

Hedden: A lot of activists have gotten frustrated with environmental politics. When you are only working with an activist approach, you are so vulnerable to what happens in Washington, D.C. All of your progress can be blown out of the water in a hurry. We need new ways to do things, and this private partnership represents one of the new ways. We’re seeing this attitude of "let’s work this damn thing out," in a lot of places around the West.

This story is funded by the generous donors to the "Who Will Take Over the Ranch" project, a series of stories on the plight of the West’s private lands.