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KAIBAB PLATEAU, Ariz. -- If you're going to break into the cowboy business, this is as good a place as any to do it.
The historic Kane and Two Mile ranches on the Utah-Arizona border not only take in 850,000 acres - most of it in the form of federal grazing lands - but also some of the most flat-out astonishing scenery in all of the American West. Head south through the pines and meadows of the Kane Ranch and visitors are eventually deposited on the rim of the Grand Canyon. Go north into the twisting canyon country of the Two Mile and it doesn't take long to get to the top of the Vermillion Cliffs, spitting distance from the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
It's big. It's beautiful. And it now has a pair of new owners: the Grand Canyon Trust and the Conservation Fund, which soon will be running nearly 800 head of cattle on their new range.
The two environmental organizations last month completed the purchase of the two ranches, and the accompanying Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service grazing allotments, from Californian David Gelbaum for $4.5 million. In terms of acreage, it may be the largest single purchase of land by conservationists in U.S. history. In that sense, it also may mark the biggest splash for free-market environmentalism, a put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is approach to conservation that is gaining converts in an arena that is otherwise marked by polarization, litigation and gridlock.
"We believe you can do more for conservation with money than without money," says Michael Ford, southwest director for the Arlington, Va.-based Conservation Fund. "We believe we've helped create a brand of conservationism that engages all Americans. And you do that by involving the private sector - foundations, major corporations, etc. - as partners. There are other models that work, but we like this model and so do our partners.
"The purchase of Kane and Two Mile demonstrates one of the most successful public-private partnerships of our time."
The Conservation Fund has a 20-year track record of buying federal grazing allotments, including those in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (52,000 acres) and Great Basin National Park (250,000). They have since been followed by sister organizations such as the Trust for Public Lands and the Nature Conservancy, which have bought ranches and allotments throughout the West, including the Dugout Ranch in southeastern Utah (305,000 private and federal acres).
Typically, these conservation groups partner with, or sublease to, ranchers for the actual day-to-day management of their vast spreads. But sometimes they take on the task themselves - which is where Flagstaff-based Grand Canyon Trust comes in.
Already a $1.5 million contributor toward the purchase of the Kane and Two Mile, the Trust also will operate the two ranches. To do so, it had to agree to get into the livestock business. And we're not just talking about a couple of dozen cows, which it runs on a grazing allotment it bought previously in the Grand Staircase monument.
To fulfill the grazing requirements of the Forest Service (which manages most of the Kane's grazing lands) and BLM (which oversees much of Two Mile), the Trust must buy 720 head of cattle and begin grazing them by next spring. That's nearly $1 million worth of cows on today's market.
"Usually you buy a ranch with cows. We bought a ranch without cows," says Rick Moore, the Kane and Two Mile ranch director for the Grand Canyon Trust. "It's no easy feat to go out and buy 800 head of cattle. We'll validate the permits; the question is, how and when. It's going to be a challenge."
It will also necessitate bringing in an experienced ranch manager - Wyoming resident John Heyneman - who in turn likely will employ a crew of three or four wranglers. But Heyneman isn't any ordinary cowpoke; he holds a master's degree in soil science from Montana State.
By combining that kind of expertise with the talents of the Trust's army of specialists and volunteers, Moore hopes to put a new spin on grazing in one of the more challenging grazing environments in the country. Which is the whole point of these kinds of endeavors in the first place.
"We wouldn't have gotten involved with this unless we could graze livestock in a more environmentally sustainable way than a normal permittee," Moore says, ticking off planned water and fencing projects, as well as species and plant inventories. "The Trust can bring a lot more resources to bear. Grazing has to be based on rigorous science. We'll really integrate the livestock operation into restoration and stewardship. In that sense, we think we're the best option."
It is the Trust's almost singular combination of deep pockets and environmental savvy that has the federal agencies enthused about the deal.
The conservation group hardly has the market cornered on progressive grazing practices, notes Vermillion Cliffs National Monument Manager Linda Price. The BLM and Forest Service jointly revised the region's grazing standards four years ago, and some area ranchers implement new approaches when they can. But the Trust has the ability to do such projects on a scale and timeline that outstrips the ability of a regular rancher - whose first priority might be putting food on the family table - or the budget-strapped federal agencies.
"That's the optimistic aspect to this. If we want to try something different, they have the resources to help us do it. They don't have the constraints others do," says Price. "So it's a great opportunity for us. They can do things like cultural inventories that we haven't been able to do. We're short of archeologists around here."
Not everybody is elated to see the Grand Canyon Trust running cattle on nearly a million acres of public land. Over on the Utah side of the line, some ranchers and county officials fret about livelihoods being lost.
"The little rancher cannot compete with environmental funding," says Kane County Commissioner Mark Habbeshaw. "If this keeps up, everybody's going to get bought out and all of our public lands will be run by conservation groups. Where do our ranching families fit into this picture?"
At the other end of the spectrum are environmental organizations that are opposed to public lands grazing of any kind in the arid Intermountain West.
Daniel Patterson, an ecologist and desert program director for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, says the Conservation Fund and Grand Canyon Trust's purchase of the ranches is a positive step - but only if they succeed in eventually getting the grazing allotments retired.
"As long as the Trust is making most of the decisions, we're confident they'll do the best job they can toward full restoration of the landscape," says Patterson. "If the Trust can get cooperation from the agencies, this will be a good deal for southern Utah and northern Arizona."
There is also some risk involved in such an undertaking, notes Lawson LeGate, southwest representative for the Sierra Club. Not only financially - even the Trust says it will be lucky to break even on its new cattle operation - but in the results of its stewardship of the range.
"If it ends up showing that grazing is terrible, that would play well with a lot of conservation groups. If it's shown that grazing can be done in a more benign manner, it probably won't sit so well," says LeGate. "So it's a risky notion. But it's something that's new and it ought to be given a chance to see if it works."
The Trust and Conservation Fund created some initial consternation on its own when the Kane and Two Mile deal was first announced in 2004 - pitching the purchase as a transaction that would weave a conservation mosaic, stitching together the ranches with Grand Canyon National Park, the Grand Staircase and Vermillion Cliffs monuments and a trio of wilderness areas.
"Their use of language was not very precise. Words like 'preservation' are loaded," says Forest Service spokesman Scott Clemans. "They imply a lot more restrictions in terms of public use and a more restrictive management style. That scared some people."
Moore, the Trust's ranch director, acknowledged some of the early rhetoric was a little "over the top." But he says he wants to make it clear that the Grand Canyon Trust is just a regular permittee. Hunters will still have full access to some of West's premier mule deer habitat on the Kaibab Plateau; off-roaders will still be able to ride their favorite trails.
"The one thing we've really tried to push is that this is a public lands ranch," says Moore, noting that the Trust and Conservation Fund own just 1,000 private acres surrounding the two ranch headquarters.
"I still think we'll make some real conservation gains here. But a lot of people have interpreted this deal as locking the land up. That has never been the case, nor could it be even if we wanted it to. The agencies manage these lands. What we can and can't do is prescribed by them. But we can do things a little differently. And we will."