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Malpai Borderlands Group: Cattle Ranchers and Environmentalists - 2002-04-28

They mistrusted, even hated one another, environmentalists and cattle ranchers in the southwestern American states of Arizona and New Mexico. But a decade ago, when several of the ranchers realized their way of life was being threatened by development, they did something simple but radical to change the situation. And, in the process they turned their enemies into friends.

It's an extraordinary place, a quiet treasure more than 400,000 hectares of arid land rich in plants and animals. After years of hostility, ranchers and conservationists in an area known as the Malpai Borderlands got together a decade ago to protect the wide-open spaces.

Rancher Bill McDonald is shoeing a horse on his cattle ranch in Arizona. Mr. McDonald says that even though he'll never make a lot of money raising cattle, he wouldn't want to live any other way. "And that doesn't make sense to most people in the world. But you have to understand that ranching is a very special way of life," he says.

This fifth-generation cattleman realized his ranch could disappear one day in the rush to sell ranches and other open spaces in the West for housing developments. "I don't believe that you can just go off on a ranch and do your own thing and expect the world to leave you alone," he says. "Those days are over. And the time to start taking action was not after the development has started but before it ever crossed that line."

To preserve the land, Bill McDonald and some other ranchers did something considered radical by western ranching standards. They held meetings with their adversaries environmental and other groups opposed to cattle ranching because they thought it spoiled the land. The ranchers disagreed and said their livelihood depended on protecting the environment. And to everyone's surprise, as the meetings progressed, Mr. McDonald says the two sides found they had more in common than they had thought. The discussions led to the formation of the Malpai Borderlands Group. Made up mostly of ranchers, the purpose of the group is to encourage profitable ranching while protecting the environment.

Mr. McDonald is Executive Director. "I think our biggest accomplishment has been to change the view of landowners and ranchers from that of being a hindrance or an obstacle to be overcome into a partner that folks can work with to take care of some of the most special places on the earth," he says.

Peter Warren, a biologist with the environmental organization, "The Nature Conservancy" works with the Malpai Borderlands Group. "At times it's difficult," he says. "At times you have to kind of bite your tongue when someone else is saying something that you might not quite agree with, but you've got to talk about it, and work through those things, and focus on the things that you agree on."

One Malpai Borderlands family, the Magoffins, is working to protect a threatened frog species (Chiracahua Leopard). A fungus has attacked the frogs and scientists don't know why. Anna Magoffin and her family created ponds to protect the frogs and asked for help. "As ranchers we don't know enough about frogs to just move on our own and say we've got it under control back away," she says. "We need the government agencies, we need the universities, we need the expertise. It's a partnership and that's what it should be."

The biggest innovation of the Malpai Borderlands Group is a concept they call "grassbanking." If a rancher's land isn't producing enough grass to feed his cattle, he can rest his land by grazing the livestock on the largest of the Malpai ranches, a 130,000 hectare ranch in New Mexico. This cattle ranch is owned by a private organization funded by a local family to preserve the wilderness.

But Mr. Donald says the rancher must first agree to what's called "a conservation easement," which prevents his ranch from ever being subdivided in the future, no matter who owns it. "In a couple of cases, the easement and grassbank situation saved the ranchers from losing their ranchers. They were actually quite close to it," he says.

Another Malpai rancher, Warner Glenn, says the ranchers have learned a lot from the scientific community, and thinks the scientists have also learned from the ranchers. "Now he may not be a college graduate, he might not have even been to high school, he might not have been through grade school, but he's probably been on that little place all his life and knows a little about mother nature and what's going on there," he says. "I think our scientific community is learning to take that into consideration."

A few years ago, Mr. Glenn spotted a rare jaguar not far from his ranch, which borders Mexico. Only about 60 jaguars have been recorded in the United States during the past century. "We're kind of thinking it might be a sign that maybe what we are doing is the right things as far as keeping open country, ranch lands and keeping wildlife corridors open," he says. To Warner Glenn, seeing the magnificent animal was a sign that the Malpai ranchers are doing their part to protect the environment.