In the Trenches: Collaborative Conservation in a Contested West

by Thomas E. Sheridan

For the last fifteen years, I’ve worked as a volunteer – a citizen anthropologist – in the collaborative conservation movement sweeping across the American West.  I co-founded the Arizona Common Ground Roundtable in 1997.  For the next five years, we (the Roundtable) sponsored forums across the state to bring ranchers, environmentalists, and sportsmen together to talk about the future of Arizona’s wide-open spaces. We found our common ground by paraphrasing political analyst, James Carville: “It’s land fragmentation, stupid!” Then I chaired the Ranch Conservation Task Force of Pima County’s visionary Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan (SDCP), which seeks to conserve both biodiversity and working ranches around the Tucson metropolitan area.  For the last decade, I have served on Pima County’s Conservation Acquisition Commission (CAC). The CAC provides recommendations to the Pima County Board of Supervisors on how to spend the $170 million in Open Space Bonds that voters approved in 2004 to support the SDCP.

Above all, I am a member of the board of directors and a Community Representative of the Altar Valley Conservation Alliance (AVCA), a grassroots group of ranchers based southwest of Tucson, Arizona.  According to our Vision Statement, “Ranchers and other agriculturalists work effectively with our partners to conserve healthy and productive working landscapes, promote a thriving agricultural economy, and sustain a resilient rural community enriched by the culture and history of the Altar Valley.”

Before I discuss how we’re trying to make that vision a reality, however, I need to provide some historical background on why my rancher friends and I – and ranchers all over the twenty-first century rural West – have formed community-based collaborative conservation groups (CBCCs), like the Altar Valley Conservation Alliance. The United States government launched a revolution in Western land tenure and land management a century ago.  Led by Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, the federal government “reserved” vast portions of the public domain as national forests, monuments, and parks (Egan 2009, Brinkley 2010).  Most of those land withdrawals were carried out by executive order, not legislative act, because the extractive interests that dominated Congress would have killed them.  But Congress did create the U.S. Forest Service (1905), the National Park Service (1916), the Bureau of Land Management (1946), and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (1940), and the laws that determined their missions.[1] The result was a mosaic of private, state, and federal lands across the West—what historian Donald Worster (1992: 44) calls “a hybrid of capitalist and bureaucratic regimes, each assuming it knows what is best for the nation’s pocketbook and for nature.”

Ranchers, loggers, and miners spent much of the twentieth century either fighting those “bureaucratic regimes” or attempting to co-opt them.  But the contradictions and tensions within the hybrid West were exacerbated as more interest groups—environmentalists, sportsmen, recreationalists—demanded their visions for public land management be recognized as well.  The proliferation of “multiple uses” on federal lands engendered a zero-sum game that promoted gridlock rather than progress (Cawley and Freemuth 1997).  By the late twentieth century, conflict intensified as interest groups became ever more polarized, with federal land managers caught in the middle, beset by lawsuits and debilitated by unfunded mandates and shrinking budgets.

To retain a voice in this increasingly challenging federal arena, rural producers have formed grassroots community-based collaborative conservation groups (CBCCs) throughout the West.  These groups pursue a variety of political and ecological goals. Many of the producers, especially ranchers and foresters, depend upon federal or state trust lands for at least a part of their livelihoods.  There are now so many CBCCs that a number of umbrella organizations, including the Quivira Coalition in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition in Portland, Oregon, have emerged to bring these groups together and provide regional forums for their concerns.

Even though ranchers and foresters founded them, CBCCs are fundamentally different from older commodity organizations like cattlegrowers’ or loggers’ associations. Rather than becoming another interest group, CBCCs attempt to bring individuals from different interest groups together to promote the long-term health of particular landscapes. Moreover, CBCCs are not temporary political coalitions.  In many cases, CBCCs avoid taking stands on controversial issues.  Instead, the successful ones serve as nodes that bring producers, environmentalists, scientists, and agency personnel together.  Their goal is to search for the common ground that unites people rather than to remain trapped within the issues that divide them.  CBCCs are trying to stitch the West back together again in an intangible but fundamental way: by bringing together people with different interests, ideologies, and backgrounds to speak with rather than at each other.

The common ground they discover usually turns out to be literal as well as metaphorical:  a watershed, valley, mountain range, or county.  And common goals often revolve around ecological processes that cut across the jurisdictional boundaries that carve up the West: the movement of wildlife, the spread of invasive species, the flow of water, the reintroduction of fire as a natural disturbance in fire-adapted ecosystems. As such, CBCCs serve as means to conserve those regions; they organize or participate in specific projects.  They develop burn plans and help carry out prescribed fires.  They restore eroded gullies.  They improve wildlife habitat or build and maintain rural roads that capture runoff and reduce erosion.

Another shared goal is economic: a desire to keep ranch and forest lands from being converted into subdivisions and strip malls.  To prevent urbanization, however, rural producers have to be able to make a living off the land.  It is not easy to be a rancher or a forester in the modern West, especially during a recession.

One possible source of income in the future may be conservation itself.  The Forest Service is already awarding stewardship contracts to thin forests to reduce fuel loads to CBCCs in some national forests (see an overview article in American Forests). In the future, federal, state, county, and municipal agencies may discover that contracting CBCCs to carry out such conservation projects may be more cost-effective than doing it themselves.  If a second revolution sweeps across the West, and if federal and state agencies develop more inclusive and collaborative decision-making processes to manage public lands, CBCCs may provide the critical institutional framework needed to partner with government agencies to stitch the West back together again, one watershed at a time.

The Altar Valley Conservation Alliance (AVCA), like our fellow Arizonan CBCCs, such as the Malpai Borderlands Group in southeastern Arizona/southwestern New Mexico and the Diablo Trust outside Flagstaff, exemplify these trends. In 1995, ranchers in the Altar Valley southwest of Tucson came together to create the AVCA. Inspired by the Malpai Borderlands Group, AVCA ranchers wanted to return fire to their high desert grasslands and keep the valley as a working landscape—open and unfragmented by subdivisions that were sprawling across the rest of southern Arizona.  The AVCA became a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization in 2000, the same year it completed an assessment of the Altar Valley watershed funded by the Arizona Water Protection Fund.

Those were hard years.  During the late 1990s, Arizona was ground zero in the Western range wars. Environmentalists, land managers and ranchers battled over the environmental impacts of cattle grazing. With its headquarters in Tucson, the Center for Biological Diversity targeted the Chilton family ranch and its Montana grazing allotment in the Coronado National Forest, arguing that Chilton cows were degrading Forest Service lands (Sheridan 2001). Co-founders of the Arizona Common Ground Roundtable as well as the AVCA, the Chiltons fought back, suing the Center for Biological Diversity for malicious libel.  Courts eventually awarded the Chiltons $100,000 in damages and $500,000 in punitive damages, but rancor and bitterness were the order of the day. Conflict between ranchers and the first director of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, which occupies the southern third of the valley, only added fuel to the fire. The refuge had been a working cattle ranch and many ranchers resented its loss, especially after the director made his anti-grazing views known.

Today the AVCA and the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge are close partners who share personnel and equipment as they carry out conservation on the ground, not in the media or in the courts. Thanks largely to the efforts of the AVCA, land managers in the Altar Valley are starting to think like a watershed instead of as a patchwork quilt of competing jurisdictions. The AVCA spearheaded the development of the Altar Valley Fire Management Plan, one of the largest in the West.  That plan is being put into action through a grant for $150,000 from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Sky Island Grasslands Initiative. The grant has funded the preparation of five prescribed burn plans, which cover public lands under the jurisdictions of the Bureau of Land Management, the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, Arizona State Trust Lands, and Pima County as well as private ranchlands. Another key partner is the Arizona Chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), which will provide liability insurance in return for having its fire manager supervise the burns. To paraphrase the fire manager for the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, the AVCA is stimulating its county, state, federal, and private partners to think outside the box and work together across boundaries to accomplish conservation on a watershed scale.

The AVCA is also working on an Altar Valley Watershed Charter, sponsoring workshops and bringing together volunteers and the Pima County Transportation Department to restore gullies and redesign rural roads to reduce erosion.  The AVCA is even working with Pima County to develop a bond proposal to secure funds to carry out a major study of the watershed to determine the best ways to restore the main trunk of Altar Wash.  David Seibert, a graduate student in the University of Arizona’s School of Anthropology, spearheaded our early efforts, obtaining grants from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, and Freeport McMoran, a mining corporation, to restore upland washes across the valley.  His work will be continued by Sarah King, the AVCA’s new Program Coordinator. Sarah is married to Joe King, one of the sons of Pat King, AVCA’s president. The King family has been running cattle on the Anvil Ranch in the northern Altar Valley since the late 1800s.  Sarah King and Sherie Steele, our Project Administrator, are the AVCA’s first part-time employees, helping us make the crucial transition from an all-volunteer organization to one with paid staff.

Seventeen years of common projects and face-to-face communication have created a network of partnerships in the Altar Valley based upon mutual trust.  AVCA works closely with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the USFWS, the Arizona State Land Department, the NRCS, TNC, and Pima County’s Natural Resources, Parks, and Recreation Department, among others.  AVCA Community Meetings generally bring thirty to fifty people together—ranchers, representatives from county, state, and federal agencies, members of other conservation NGOs—to share news, learn about issues, collaborate on conservation projects, and stay in touch.  The AVCA website disseminates our work and that of our partners to a much wider public.

Because of our track record, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation recently awarded the AVCA a second grant of $382,000 to integrate prescribed fire with watershed restoration.  The AVCA also received the Quivira Coalition’s Clarence Burch Award in 2010, while the Sonoran Institute honored me with one of its Faces of Conservation awards in 2007.  It’s been one of the greatest privileges of my life to work with the AVCA and to bring my anthropological training to bear on an ever-changing political and ecological landscape. In addition to the land management issues outlined above, we face other challenges, including a Southwestern climate that is growing hotter and drier and a shared border with Mexico that moves drugs and migrants through our valley every day.  We don’t always agree about these challenges, but we’ve learned to identify our common ground and to agree to respectfully disagree about the rest. That’s the heart of the collaborative conservation movement. It’s also the foundation of democracy. The people I’ve come to respect are the pragmatists who get down in the trenches and try to solve common problems, not the ideologues who are content to snipe from the sidelines.

Dr. Thomas E. Sheridan holds a joint appointment as Research Anthropologist at the Southwest Center and Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Arizona. A life-long Arizonan, he has authored or co-edited twelve books about the American Southwest and Northern Mexico. Dr. Sheridan is a past president of the Anthropology and Environment Society. He and two co-editors – anthropologist Susan Charnley of the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station and ethnobiologist Gary Nabhan of the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center – are currently preparing Stitching the West Back Together: Conserving Working Landscapes and Biodiversity in the American West, a book on collaborative conservation for the University of Chicago Press.


Notes

[1] Both the BLM and the USFWS are in the Department of the Interior.  The BLM was created in 1946 when Congress merged the U.S. Grazing Service (established by the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934), with the General Land Office, founded in 1812.  Congress established the USFWS in 1940 when it combined the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries and the U.S. Biological Survey, both of which evolved out of earlier federal agencies. The USFWS was reorganized in 1956.

References

Brinkley, Douglas. 2010. The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America. New York: Harper Perennial.

Cawley, RM and J. Freemuth. 1997. A Critique of the Multiple Use Framework in Public Lands Decision Making. In Western Public Lands and Environmental Politics, ed. C. Davis, pp. 32-44. Boulder, CO:  Westview Press.

Egan, Timothy. 2009. The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America.  New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Sheridan, Thomas E. 2001. Cows, condos, and the contested commons: The political ecology of ranching on the Arizona-Sonora borderlands. Human Organization 60(2): 141–152.

Worster, Donald. 1992. Cowboy Ecology. In Under Western Skies: Nature and History in the American West, pp. 34-52. New York: Oxford University Press.

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