Unranchers gain ground



The Arizona Supreme Court has cleared another hurdle from the path of conservation groups that want to lease state grazing land and return it to pre-grazing conditions. On Nov. 21, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled 4-1 that the state land department can't deny conservation groups the right to bid on state grazing leases. The decision reversed the land department's 1997 denial of three bids by Santa Fe-based Forest Guardians and Jon Tate, founder of the Tucson-based hunters' group Western Gamebird Alliance.

Forest Guardians director John Horning says he's "thrilled" with the ruling, but that many questions still remain unanswered. The lands department, he says, could still argue that ranchers have priority for leases because they are locally based land stewards. Nonetheless, Horning says Forest Guardians hopes to build a million-dollar endowment to fund conservation leases; so far, the group has collected about $50,000.

Horning says conservationists will never be able to lease all of the 9.3 million acres of Arizona state trust land open for grazing. Instead, Forest Guardians hopes to concentrate its money on the ecological "crown jewels" of state lands.

But Jan Wilson of the Falcon Valley Ranch says ranchers will be outgunned in the bidding wars that may follow the decision.

"Everybody wants to be a conservationist. People can give a dollar here or a dollar there and it adds up to a lot of money," she says. "But there's no way a rancher - or any businessman - can go out and say: Will you contribute a dollar to my business?"

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