The right-wing heiress who changed course in the desert

Looking back on Bazy Tankersley: publisher, rancher and conservationist.

  • Bazy Tankersley with two of her prized Arabian horses in 1993.

    Al-Marah Arabian Horses
  • Bazy Tankersley's Al-Marah Ranch outside Tucson, Arizona.

    Al-Marah Arabian Horses
 

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Many people say that the work Bazy did in the desert and the conservationists she met there helped nudge her toward a more moderate and at times even liberal stance. She moved back to Arizona in the mid-1970s, bought more than 100 acres along seasonal Sabino Creek near Tucson, and moved the Al-Marah Arabian breeding there. Within a few years, she had thrown herself into helping Defenders of Wildlife preserve Aravaipa Canyon, a remote, 12-mile-long wonderland of saguaros, mesquites and a year-round stream northeast of Tucson.

Defenders bought thousands of acres bracketing the canyon, and to keep federal grazing leases from falling into other hands, brought in a rare variety of Barzona cattle, derived from the bloodlines of African bulls and able to withstand the heat and drought. "Mrs. T" -- as she was affectionately known -- managed the preserve for a decade, helped Defenders buy more land and paid to refurbish a farmhouse there. She also invited wealthy friends to visit and take trail rides, and encouraged them to donate to the cause.

Bazy was an expert rider who wore jeans, cowboy boots and a brimmed hat, recalls Louis Barassi, Defenders' president back then. "She put on no airs. Every time there was a trail ride or some other event, she would be out there, and many times she would go riding with the herd's full-time manager over the range."

Bazy also bought the Hat Ranch, near Williams, in the 1970s and ran cattle on 100,000 acres of federal grazing leases until the 1990s. She practiced holistic rotational grazing and powered the ranch with solar panels. In Flagstaff, she developed an equestrian subdivision and donated development rights to more than 1,500 acres to the Grand Canyon Trust, to prevent further subdividing.

She was low-profile about her charity and community work, which ranged from helping individuals with their medical bills to founding the St. Gregory college prep school in Tucson. She poured close to a million dollars into the aquaculture research of Carl Hodges, director of the University of Arizona's Environmental Research Lab and founder of the Seawater Foundation. Hodges developed shrimp farming on the Mexican coast and various other innovative agriculture methods around the world. Bazy served on his foundation's board and paid to produce a PBS video about his Africa research.

"She was as fine and intellectually competent an environmentalist as anybody I'd ever known," says Hodges, who participated in the Straw Bale Forums, which featured speakers on the environment, water and government as well as other topics, including ethics, globalization, and humans' relationship with animals. Afternoons were reserved for discussion of art, music, photography, literature, bookbinding and horses; evenings were devoted to drinks and poker.

Bazy had a knack for bringing people of disparate backgrounds together, especially mavericks like herself. Another friend, artist Andrew Rush, says the Straw Bale Forums were "like her private university." The most ambitious forum, in 2009, produced a 28-page blueprint calling for advances in renewable energy, building a smart-growth coalition, water conservation and reform of state-land management.

To some, she came across as autocratic, particularly during the mid-1970s when she was president of the board of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. She lasted only three years there, due to a dispute over managing staff. Even in later years, "If she served on a board, you never got the feeling that democracy would enter the room," says Herman Bleibtreu, another friend and retired dean of the University of Arizona College of Liberal Arts. "If she was in any position of leadership or power, she was dominant."

Bazy never earned a high school or college degree, seldom flew in an airplane or rode elevators. She liked driving old station wagons or SUVs -- "god-awful cars, so old that everyone got a little concerned that they were kind of rickety," says Bleibtreu. Her Arabian horse operation produced more than 3,000 of the desert-adapted equines over 70 years, and she rode horses clear into her 80s. She often had dogs at her side and kept flocks of chickens. "We weren't even allowed to have an exterminator in the house to kill spiders and ants," recalls Barbara Rosenberg, her longtime personal secretary. "Raccoons lived in the walls, and she just loved that."

In her last decade, she became a registered Democrat. She voted for Barack Obama for president in 2008 and donated to the campaigns of then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat who is as well known for her civility as McCarthy was for his demagoguery. "Bazy was always looking for ways to make Arizona a better place from a conservation perspective," recalls another leading Arizona conservationist, Luther Propst. And she developed a sense of humor: Bazy once sent Propst a Christmas card depicting arms wrapped around a huge sequoia tree. It was captioned "a tree hugger's delight."

---

Tony Davis covers the environment for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, along with regular freelancing for HCN.

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