TUCSON, Ariz. — With a landmark court victory in hand, a Southwest environmental group wants to raise $1 million so it can kick cattle off tens of thousands of acres of Arizona and New Mexico.
On Nov. 21, the Santa Fe-based group Forest Guardians won a case before Arizona’s Supreme Court that upended a decades-old policy of giving ranchers a monopoly on 8.3 million acres of state school trust land.
The court said people with no intention of raising livestock could still bid on the 10-year grazing leases, which cover about 10 percent of the state.
An Arizona Daily Star review of State Land Department records has found that 497 grazing leases in Pima County covering 205,068 acres will expire in 2002.
Environmentalists say the decision will let them rest land that has been overgrazed to resemble “moonscapes” and end a subsidy for “cowboy socialists” that shortchanges the state’s public school system.
But the ruling outraged many local ranchers. They fear it could kill their businesses and promote housing development on ranches that have hosted livestock since Arizona’s territorial days and grazing by other animals for eons longer.
For the King family, the ruling means land they’ve ranched for four generations, since 1895, is up for grabs.
In Altar Valley, 35 miles southwest of Tucson, the Kings run cattle on about 50,000 acres, most of it school trust land.
“I don’t believe I’ve abused this land, be it state land or our own private land. We care for it just the same,” Pat King said. “We’ve done lots of conservation work and we’re very proud of it.”
Jim Chilton, another Altar Valley rancher, said opening up grazing leases to the free market could create confusion and “pit neighbor against neighbor” since state lands are often interspersed with private property in a checkerboard pattern.
Of the 1.6 million acres of grazed land in Pima County, 51 percent is state trust, 27 percent is federal and 12 percent is private property, according to county figures.
Many ranchers say the new rules are akin to turning owner-occupied homes into rental units with high turnover — the short-term tenants won’t be good stewards of the land.
But grazing opponents counter that cattle pollute water sources, introduce exotic species and destroy habitat for endangered wildlife. Forest Guardians’ Web site calls livestock grazing “by far the single most destructive activity on Southwestern public lands.”
Ranchers respond that well-managed grazing actually improves range conditions.
“These plants have evolved over the last 100,000 or 200,000 years with grazing,” Chilton said. “We have all kinds of evidence that horses, camel, bison, mammoth and other grazing animals have been on the land for eons.”
For decades, ranchers have had a lock on the grazing leases, paying an average of 25 cents per acre annually, according to State Land Department officials.
But in recent years, environmental groups tried bidding on those leases, sometimes offering five times as much money as ranchers did. Until last month’s Supreme Court decision, those bids were rejected out of hand.
Although the State Land Department still has some leeway in determining who is the “best” bidder, environmentalists say it will now have to prove why livestock is better for the land than a period of nongrazing.
John Horning, conservation director for Forest Guardians, said his group is creating a list of targets by overlaying biological diversity data on top of maps that show which grazing leases are expiring.
“We’re looking at the 10 to 15 sites that are the ecological crown jewels of state trust lands,” said Horning.
In the arid Southwest, that usually means areas with water.
If Forest Guardians raises $1 million, it could control 50,000 to 100,000 acres in Arizona and New Mexico, Horning said.