Rancher Honored as Preservation Pioneer
Bill McDonald surveys the hilly country around his cattle ranch in far southeastern Arizona, scuffs the soil with a well-worn boot and likes what he sees.
McDonald, a fifth-generation rancher, has used his knack for forging consensus among fellow ranchers and some conservationists to help save an 800,000-acre ecosystem, and with it a lifestyle.
His work has earned him a prestigious so-called “genius grant” worth $285,000. The five-year stipend, one of 29 fellowships the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded this year, is seen as conferring even more credibility on the efforts of McDonald and the Malpai Borderlands Group.
The aim is to help ranchers progressively manage an environment larger than Grand Canyon National Park and to keep intact basically unfragmented open space. It’s a combination of private land owned by 32 ranchers--about half the area--and the rest public lands that they lease from the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management or Arizona and New Mexico state trust holdings.
Species ranging from the endangered ridge-nosed rattlesnake and Mexican long-nosed bat to mule deer, pronghorn and desert bighorn sheep roam the rugged, pyramid-shaped region--from its base on the Mexican border, running about 60 miles north and straddling both sides of the Arizona-New Mexico line.
McDonald and his ranching neighbors concluded around 1990 “that if their land and livelihoods were going to make it, they were going to have to work with a new group of people,” says the Nature Conservancy’s Mike Dennis.
“They decided that there was a train wreck coming and they were right in the middle of it, and that they would sit down and start communicating with people. That’s the genius of Bill McDonald. He listens very carefully to his neighbors and friends, and works to bring people to what he calls ‘the radical center.’ ”
They sat down with some anti-rancher environmentalists late in 1992 at Warner and Wendy Glenn’s nearby Malpai Ranch to explore whether they could find common ground.
Two keys emerged over the next year and a half, McDonald said:
* A shared love of the open-space landscape and a desire to keep it that way.
* A common concern about woody species, trees and shrubs from mesquite to creosote, acacia and oak, encroaching on meadows and grassy valleys, which to ranchers means a shrinking forage base.
After the group’s second meeting, McDonald said, “I was sure that we had latched onto something.”
It has added members, including government agency specialists, Nature Conservancy officials and others, and has been “bumping along” since, McDonald added.
“We haven’t crashed yet and have gotten some things done.”
Among its achievements:
* Incorporating as a nonprofit organization and focusing on reducing the polarization between ranching interests and conservationists, particularly by limiting the impact of grazing on public lands and riparian areas.
* Creation of a “grass bank” and “conservation easements” intended to help ensure that ranchers can keep their lands open and undeveloped, and that they and their children can continue ranching without having to sell off and subdivide their acreage.
* An emphasis on sound scientific study for how best to approach restoration of ecologically fragile areas and to help endangered and threatened species through a “ranchers’ endangered species program.”
As an example, during an extended drought, one area ranching family trucked a thousand gallons of water to stock ponds to keep one of the last populations of Chiricahua leopard frogs alive.
* Getting federal bureaucrats and officials from two states to sign off on reintroduction of fire into the ecosystem through prescribed burns, to help remove the woody invaders and allow grasses to return.
* Improving the uplands and forage on hillsides, which will reduce runoff and in turn will help improve riparian areas.
McDonald, his lean 6-foot-6 frame topped by a weathered maroon baseball cap with the legend “Beef,” is unchanged despite a rush of notoriety, his friends say.
Botanist Ray Turner pronounces McDonald as humble, down-to-earth and unassuming as ever, and his friends and relatives are only too eager to zing him at every turn over the “genius” tag.
Still, Turner said McDonald has a flair for public speaking.
“There are a lot of folks in the ranching community who would not feel very comfortable addressing the National Science Foundation and scientific groups or others like Bill has done.”
For his part, McDonald said, the extremists are still there.
“My hope is that what we’re doing will encourage other people to step toward the middle and find solutions and that the extreme positions [will] be marginalized over time.”
Ron Bemis, a Malpai Group member and soil conservation specialist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, a federal agency, said the open-arms approach has won many adherents, in and outside government offices.
“I think one reason we’re so popular is we don’t go out and file lawsuits and fight,” said Wendy Glenn, one of the group’s two paid employees. “We’re not going out and making people mad. We go out and work out our problems.”
“They’re certainly hard-working people trying to find some solutions, and they’ve done some really good work,” said Peter Galvin, conservation biologist with the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, which abhors grazing on public lands and frequently sues federal agencies to try to halt the practice and to protect threatened species.
“If all ranchers were like the Malpai group, the West would sure be in a lot better shape,” Galvin said. “We probably wouldn’t be in court as often as we are.”