A conservation first for Arizona

  • The San Rafael Ranch in Arizona will be preserved

    Sonoran Institute photo

SANTA CRUZ COUNTY, Ariz. - Travelers often gasp when they reach the crest of Forest Road 58 in the Patagonia Mountains and see the San Rafael Valley spreading below to Mexico. The valley, where the musical Oklahoma was filmed years ago, is a wide bowl of grassland and gentle ridges, one of the most unbroken remnants of shortgrass prairie in the Southwest. Locals call the rise, 70 miles south of Tucson, "Oh-My-God Point."

Now, the valley is prompting new exclamations of astonishment. The stir arises from a major conservation agreement announced last month by the Arizona State Parks Board that will preserve the 34-square-mile San Rafael Ranch at the valley's heart.

Through a conservation easement, the state will pay about $8 million of state Heritage Fund money to rancher Bob Sharp and his sisters to purchase development rights on the Sharps' 22,000-acre spread. The Sharps will still own the ranch, but the state will acquire a small tract for a grassland education center, and the land will be protected for ranching and open space.

The deal, which still needs to be finalized, will mark Arizona's first purchase of a sizable conservation easement with public money. It is also an unusual example of ranchers leading a reluctant state into an ambitious conservation project.

"Rarely do people who wouldn't ordinarily get together to do conservation do that and then come up with a landscape-scale success," says Luther Propst of the Tucson-based Sonoran Institute.

While Propst and the institute helped with the technical work, the easement owes its existence to valley ranchers, who for years have been worried about the future of their rural area. In 1992, an absentee landowner split up the neighboring Ki-He-Kah Ranch into parcels of several hundred acres, raising fears of subdividing. At the same time, the Sharp family realized that it might have to sell off ranchettes to pay costly estate taxes when Bob Sharp's mother died and left the ranch to her children.

These fears galvanized the community, and in 1994 a group of ranchers founded the San Rafael Valley Land Trust to help keep their valley and way of life intact. "We basically had to figure all this out by ourselves," says trust President Ann Patton, recalling the group's early meetings. "But in the end, easements seemed the best way to hold things together."

Easements seemed appropriate to the ranchers because they allow landowners to sell development rights, raise needed cash and reduce property and estate taxes, all while protecting the land and preserving local control. Still, calling in a conservation group like the Nature Conservancy would have alarmed some residents of the valley. So the ranchers decided to deal with the state, which in 1990 had created a "Heritage Fund" to protect natural areas.

Nevertheless, the trust spent two years "just trying to convince somebody (in state government) to do something," says Patton. Arizona has historically been hostile to conservation. Like many Western states, Arizona has moved slowly to buy private land or development rights on private land for fear of angering property-rights defenders. As a result, the Heritage Fund accrued some $8 million for natural areas protection that sat unused.

"We've kind of been on the backs of (the Arizona Parks Board) for years for doing squat," says Andy Gordon, the Phoenix lawyer who heads the Arizona Heritage Alliance, which monitors the fund.

But now comes the San Rafael easement, and it's a doozy - -like somebody batting .050 hitting a grand slam," as Gordon puts it. It's "a breakthrough in terms of a reluctant state realizing what it can do. Finally, Arizona is realizing that easements are a superb way to do cost-effective conservation while leaving land on the tax rolls and making peace with the ranchers."

Gordon is not the only one celebrating. Arizona ranchers are rallying around the big easement, and many are beginning to inquire about working out similar deals. "It's another option for ranchers," concedes C.B. "Doc" Lane, president of the Arizona Cattlemen's Association. "If this is what the state wants to do, well, that's fine."

Mark Muro writes editorials for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.

You can contact ...

* Arizona State Parks at 1300 W. Washington, Phoenix, AZ 85007 (602/542-1996);

* The Sonoran Institute for its reports, A Profile of Arizona's San Rafael Valley and A Framework for Guiding the Future of the San Rafael Valley, at 7290 E. Broadway, Tucson, AZ 85710 (520/290-0828);

* The San Rafael Valley Land Trust at HCR 2, Box 179, Patagonia, AZ 85624 (520/455-5310).

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