For years The Nature Conservancy has taken a direct route in its quest to protect native plants and animals: buying land and prohibiting most human activities on it. That strategy has paid big dividends in the West. In the 10 Western states outside California, the Washington, D.C.-based group has protected 3.4 million acres of private lands, much of it through direct acquisition.


But as the Conservancy has reached the limits of both its pocketbook and its ability to manage the land, it has shifted strategy. Witness the group's pending purchase of the 950-acre Carpenter Ranch, 19 miles west of Steamboat Springs, along the Yampa River. The ranch will not be a biological refuge, says Steamboat staffer Jamie Williams, but a testing ground for ranching techniques compatible with habitat preservation.


"We can't achieve our mission through land acquisition, and it wouldn't be desirable anyway," says Williams. "It's really driven the Conservancy to expand from a purely land-acquisition focus to one of building partnerships with private landowners and other people."


From an ecological standpoint, the Carpenter Ranch has something rare in the West - a relatively undisturbed cottonwood/box elder/dogwood forest along the Yampa River.


The 240-mile-long Yampa is one of the longest, most intact rivers in the West, with only two impoundments on its main stem. Eighty percent of the riverbank is privately owned. The purchase of Carpenter Ranch will give Williams "a seat at the table" with traditional ranching interests.


It will be quite a seat: The ranch once was owned by Farrington Carpenter, a Routt County rancher and attorney who in 1934 set up the Federal Grazing Service to implement the Taylor Grazing Act. That agency metamorphosed into the Bureau of Land Management, which still oversees much of the public grazing land in the West.


Williams' first year in Routt County was difficult. "There was a tremendous amount of skepticism and suspicion and misunderstanding about what we might do here," he recalls. "I think the biggest concern was we would buy up the river and give it to the feds."


He spent a lot of time drinking coffee in ranchers' kitchens, building bridges. Williams has an Ivy League degree, but grew up in rural Oklahoma and drives a pickup. "It was pretty intimidating (for me)," he says of those early discussions. "(But) just being able to spend time individually has made a huge difference in building relationships of trust."


To bolster the Conservancy's local presence, Williams formed the 14-member Yampa River Advisory Committee - half of whose members are ranchers - to direct the Conservancy's work. The committee has won the support of locals, says Williams, because its members are locals working to develop a local vision.


After the Conservancy closes on the Carpenter Ranch in December, Williams will hire a ranch manager and start a trial-and-error program for managing cattle in the river's bottomlands, fiddling with the timing and intensity of grazing in various ecosystems.


"We've got to be in the game trying things ourselves," Williams says, "or we don't have a lot of credibility with others. Our ultimate goal on the Yampa is to support other stewards of the land on the land."


With some minor changes, Williams believes, "ranching and conservation on the Yampa can go hand in hand."


*H.C.