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for people who care about the West

The granddaddy of all collaboration groups


One thing you quickly learn in the rural West is that ranchers come in all shapes and sizes. There are the fourth-generation ranchers hanging on by their toenails with overextended credit and the eternal hope that cattle prices will rebound, the drought will break, and most of their cows will be found on the mountain before the first snowfall. And then there are the ranchers who look exactly like hardscrabble cowmen, stubbly chins and all, but who are also industrial tycoons or heirs to some other urban fortune.

The Malpai Borderlands Group, perhaps the most hailed example of collaborative place-based resource management in the West, has both types of ranchers in its ranks, and a few others to boot. And, according to Nathan Sayre, author of the beautiful and compact Working Wilderness: The Malpai Borderlands Group and the Future of the Western Range, this diversity has given the group the ability to move nimbly to save one of the last unspoiled corners of the West — “a 1,250-square mile triangle of land, draped over the Continental Divide, where Arizona and New Mexico meet the Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua.”

Sayre, who once worked for the Malpai group, introduces us to the wonderful palette of characters who pooled their talents in the early 1990s to fight exurban sprawl and restore a rare grassland ecosystem. They include Jim Corbett, a former Sanctuary Movement leader who helped guide Central American refugees through the desert into the U.S.; Drum Hadley, the poetry-loving heir to the Anheuser-Busch fortune, who relishes putting cowboys and conservationists in the same room; Warner and Wendy Glenn, fourth-generation ranchers and hunting guides with a soft spot for the elusive jaguars that occasionally cross over from Mexico; and a “lanky, pale and bespectacled” New Englander named John Cook. Cook, a Nature Conservancy employee, gained the trust of the ranchers and helped them protect the area’s extraordinary biological heart, the 321,000-acre Gray Ranch.

Sayre, a geography professor at UC Berkeley, paints an intimate portrait of the landscape. Fire once kept the grasslands free from woody brush, but fire suppression has allowed the brush to spread. Today, the Malpai landowners want to reintroduce fire, but they’ve run into bureaucratic hurdles, including a heated scientific squabble over whether fire would kill off too many endangered New Mexico ridgenose rattlesnakes. Sayre’s detailed examinations of these complications add heft and balance to what is clearly a sympathetic portrait of his former employers.

In a late chapter, he tackles the million-dollar question: Does the granddaddy of all collaboration groups offer a good model for other ranchers who would like to protect the West’s special places? No, and yes, Sayre concludes. Not every ranching community will have the Malpai group’s unique blend of science, range smarts and philanthropic savvy, he acknowledges. But they can still embrace the group’s openness to new ideas, and its understanding that saving ranchlands is about a lot more than running livestock.

Working Wilderness: The Malpai Borderlands Group and the Future of the Western Range
Nathan F. Sayre
128 pages,
softcover: $22.95.
Rio Nuevo, 2006.