Does the Nature Conservancy Really Care About Nature?


The Nature Conservancy (TNC) recently publish an article exalting the Malpai Borderlands group in Arizona and New Mexico. You can read the article for a little background on the Malpai group, but the basic story is relatively simple. A very large ranch called the Gray’s Ranch lying along the Mexican border in the Animas Valley of New Mexico was for sale. TNC bought it for $18 million planning to resell it to the US Fish and Wildlife Service to create a large National Wildlife Refuge. Local ranchers were opposed to any more federal ownership in the area. In steps Drum Hadley, an heir to Anheuser Bush beer fortune and an admirer of the “cowboy” lifestyle. Hadley buys the Gray Ranch. Using the ranch as a “grass bank,” Hadley persuades other ranchers to adopt some less destructive grazing management and conservation easements in exchange for grazing access to the Gray’s Ranch. TNC promotes this story as an example of how ranching can co-exist with protecting landscapes.

Whenever a conservation group starts to talk about “preserving a lifestyle” you have to be wary. In fact, what they are preserving a “deathstyle” since livestock production is responsible for the listing of more species in the West under the Endangered Species Act than any other factor

However, the story leaves much out. It glosses over the many, many unavoidable impacts of livestock grazing upon native ecosystems. Including the obvious fact that putting the majority of vegetation into the belly of an exotic animal reduces the carrying capacity for native herbivores from grasshoppers to pronghorn. Most of the riparian areas and springs have been commandeered for livestock use—again with direct consequences for native species.

Instead we are lead to believe that ranching is a positive influence upon the landscape.

I have been to this area a number of times. Have many photos of trashed and overgrazed areas on public lands allotments held by Malpai ranchers as well as private lands that are heavily grazed.

The Gray Ranch itself is in pretty good shape because it is actually not grazed except in drought years or alternative grassland when there is a fire that eliminates forage on public allotment or private ranch. It’s used as a ‘grass bank”.  In other words, it is the absence of cattle that leads to better condition rangelands on the ranch.

However, had it been made into a wildlife refuge, I have no doubts that it would have been in as good or better shape.

Furthermore, another detail not disclosed is that the “conservation easement” allows the ranchers to sell their property for development if “economic conditions for cattle ranching decline” or some such language. There’s  a Capital Press article where Bill McDonald is bragging about how the conservation easement has this trigger mechanism that allows them the ability to dissolve the conservation easement. In other words it’s not iron clad. There is a loop hole that allows them to get out of the easement. So it’s not as good as one might imagine

The article uses the old cows v. condos argument to suggest that had the Gray’s Ranch been made into a National Wildlife Refuge, and the local ranchers had not entered into conservation easements, these private ranches would be subdivided.

This is a common scenario used all the time to justify on-going livestock abuse of the land. No matter how bad cattle grazing may be, condos or housing tracts are worse, so do not criticize the ranchers.

However, not all ranches are equally attractive for subdivision. The Malpai Borderlands is very, very remote country. It’s far, far, far from any towns, amenities, etc. and its potential for subdivision is very low. Not to mention being close to the border with all the migrants crossing has many people nervous. It’s not the kind of place that is a top priority for housing, especially since there are places much closer to Tucson with much greater subdivision potential.

There is so much happy talk about how ranchers are benefiting wildlife in this article. For instance, the article has this quote: “Radke leads the way to a little pond used to store water for livestock. He explains that this stock tank played a vital role in preserving the Chiricahua leopard frog, even before the species was listed under the Endangered Species Act. During a drought, the ranchers trucked in water for two years to keep the frogs alive. “The only reason these frogs are here in the San Bernardino Valley is because of this rancher.”.

But what TNC fails to disclose is that the entire reason the Chiricahua Leopold Frog is in trouble in the first place is that cattle have trashed the riparian areas and springs that constitute its natural habitat, leaving the amphibians almost no intact habitat. Cattle stock ponds are hardly ideal habitat for the frog, and promoting ranching as a positive influence for the species is another example of TNC’s pro-ranching ideology.

And they are almost ecstatic that the area did not become a wildlife refuge and public land. Most of the positive conservation projects are financed by Drum Hadley, the beer fortune cowboy, and without his money much of the work would not be done. Not to dismiss it, but Hadley is trying to prove that ranching is positive.

Most of what his money is doing is repairing the impacts from cattle, and/or eliminating cattle from an area and then promoting the results as an example of how cattle grazing can improve the land, i.e. fencing to keep cattle out of sensitive areas. And calling “water developments” a positive thing is another illusion. That means taking water from natural water sources and putting it in stock ponds or water troughs–meaning it is not available for natural flows, riparian vegetation, etc.

Once again we see a national environmental organization ignoring the real costs of livestock production, and trying to make a purse from a sow’s ear. Unfortunately by promoting ranching in the arid, these organizations are misleading the public, and contributing to the continued demise of many species.

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George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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