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Working Wilderness: The Malpai Borderlands Group and the Future of the Western Range

by Nathan F. Sayre

Editor's Note: The following preface and chapter are excerpted from Nathan F. Sayre's Working Wilderness: The Malpai Borderlands Group and the Future of the Western Range published in 2005 by Rio Nuevo Publishers of Tucson, Arizona. It is reprinted by permission of the publisher.

Preface: Suppressing a Fire, Igniting a Community

On July 2, 1991, a fire broke out in a patch of grass near the Geronimo Trail Road, a lonely gravel track in far southeastern Arizona, closer to Mexico than to any building or town. By the next day the fire had been extinguished, having blackened about five hundred acres. It was an unremarkable event in a place where abundant lightning follows spring drought, and where the Forest Service had long responded to wildfires the way a fire department responds to a burning house. Unremarkable except for the fact that this particular fire struck at a particular place and time where a different kind of fuel was primed for ignition: a volatile mixture of people and land, history and ecology, passion and politics.

Firefighter in brush fire.
Photos by Ron Bemis (top) and William R. Radke (bottom).  
Firefighter and brushland fire.

The people had lived there a long time, as much as five generations, and they had come to believe that the land needed to burn once in awhile. They urged the Forest Service to leave this one alone. It posed no threat to people or property and could not spread far because the surrounding vegetation was too sparse to carry the flames. It wouldn’t even have ignited if the rancher whose land it was on had not invested in killing the shrubs to encourage the grasses several years earlier; now, it needed a fire to keep new shrubs from getting the upper hand again. Let it burn, they said, you’re wasting taxpayers’ money. But the Service refused their entreaties and extinguished the fire, and in so doing ignited the community.

Fourteen years later, that new fire has grown to encompass some 800,000 acres. It is called the Malpai Borderlands Group, a not-for-profit organization composed of ranchers, scientists, public agencies, and private conservationists. “Malpai” comes from the ranch where they first convened; “Borderlands” refers to a 1,250-square-mile triangle of land, draped over the Continental Divide where Arizona and New Mexico meet the Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua; and “Group” describes the collaborative philosophy by which they have chosen to work.

For its size, the Borderlands is believed to be one of the most biologically diverse places in North America, crowded with organisms from the Great Plains, the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts, the Rocky Mountains, and the Sierra Madre. It contains grasslands and marshes, pine forests and creosote bush flats, mesquite bosques, oak savannas, cactus thickets, and ribbons of cottonwood. A fifty-acre piece of desert scrub here supports more species of rodents than does the entire state of Pennsylvania. One of its mountain passes is home to more kinds of reptiles and amphibians than any known site in the U.S. Over half of the bird species in North America can be found in the Chiricahua Mountains, immediately to the west, and the Gray Ranch, which forms the eastern third of the triangle, was named one of the world’s “last great places” for biodiversity by The Nature Conservancy. Bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope, mountain lions and black bears, and even an occasional jaguar can be found here. It is an area one-quarter larger than the state of Rhode Island, yet it has almost no paved roads. The human population is most easily expressed not in persons per square mile, but in square miles per person.

Literally and figuratively, the Malpai Borderlands Group burns to conserve this land: to keep it open, undeveloped, and wild, free of highways and houses. It burns to help repair the damage the land has experienced since Geronimo surrendered to the U.S. military in one of its jagged canyons back in 1886. Most broadly, the Malpai Group burns to sustain the Borderlands as a working wilderness: a place where wildness thrives not in the absence of human work or in spite of it, but because of it, and where thriving wildlands in turn sustain the human community that lives and works there. Superficially, this work is the same as it has been for five generations—the work of ranching, of raising cattle on the range—but it has grown to include scientific research, communications and outreach, real estate, law, wildlife biology, planning, and fire management as well. Not to mention politics. It’s fair to say that some Malpai ranchers spend more time in meetings than they do in the saddle.

The Malpai Group’s mission statement reads:

Our goal is to restore and maintain the natural processes that create and protect a healthy, unfragmented landscape to support a diverse, flourishing community of human, plant and animal life in our Borderlands region.

Together, we will accomplish this by working to encourage profitable ranching and other traditional livelihood which will sustain the open space nature of our land for generations to come.

Malpai Borderlands Group.
  Early portrait of the Malpai Borderlands Group, taken in the Glenns' barn, 1995.
Photo by Jay Dusard.

Simple as it may sound, this mission in fact represents an extraordinarily difficult challenge. It will take generations to achieve, if indeed it proves possible at all. But the Malpai Group has made impressive strides already. It has helped return fire to more than 300,000 acres of land. It has secured conservation easements that protect 75,760 acres of private land from subdivision and development, all acquired from willing sellers, without government assistance. It has implemented innovative measures to protect endangered species and supported cutting-edge research on fire, climate, vegetation, grazing, and wildlife. For its efforts in community-based conservation, Malpai has received awards from The Nature Conservancy, the Society for Conservation Biology, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Arizona Game and Fish Department. In 1998 Bill McDonald, the group’s executive director, was awarded a “genius” fellowship by the MacArthur Foundation. Malpai has been featured in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian and Audubon magazines, public television and the Discovery Channel, National Public Radio, and in the journals Conservation Biology and BioScience. In the bitterly fought contest over America’s Western rangelands, the Malpai Borderlands Group is widely seen as a beacon of hope and possibility. Countless other efforts to protect Western landscapes from fragmentation and development have sprung up in recent years, inspired in some degree by the example of Malpai.

The story of the Malpai Borderlands Group comprises three broad questions. First, how did it happen at all? What created the fuel that was ignited by suppression of the Geronimo Trail fire? Second, what has the Malpai Group accomplished, and how? What has enabled it to unite scientists, landowners, agencies, and conservationists in a community-based effort to understand, protect, and enhance a large, complex landscape? And third, what are its prospects for the future? Does it hold lessons for conservation elsewhere, or is it one of a kind, an anomaly?

Diamond A Outfit cowboys, 1880s.
Top: Diamond A Outfit cowboys from Cochise County, Arizona, 1880s.
Photo courtesy Southwest Studies, Maricopa Community College.
Bottom: Geronomo Trail Road in San Bernadino Valley, near the site of the 1991 fire.
Photos by W. Ross Humphreys.
Geronimo Trail Road.

In terms of the first question, the Malpai Group presents a most improbable story, in which particular people and events seem to have come together in just the right mixture and sequence, as if by the kindness of fate. Individually and collectively, the members of the Malpai Group have demonstrated a remarkable aptitude for turning chance events—such as Warner Glenn’s 1996 encounter with a jaguar—into opportunities for achievement. Given what has been accomplished already—the answers to question two—one might easily see Malpai as a contemporary Western, complete with leather-skinned cowboys taking bold risks and arriving at a happy ending. However, question three reveals that this story is far from over, and that if it is to end happily it will have to become the first of many similar stories elsewhere. Not that the Malpai story can be copied in any simple manner—no, those stories will have to emerge from the grass roots, like the Malpai Group did, respecting and adapting to particular places, people, histories, and landscapes. Malpai can be an example and inspiration for others, but it cannot work as a model to be imposed on them.

The Malpai Group is still far from its goals, and ultimately its success or failure may depend on what happens to the rest of the West’s rangelands. To appreciate the magnitude of the work that remains to be done, one must understand the strength and depth of the forces arrayed in the other direction: the economic, political, ecological, and social trends that are squeezing ranchers throughout the West and giving rise to new patterns of land use.

It may seem infinitely improbable, even miraculous, that fire broke out where it did that day in 1991, igniting that particular patch of grass and, in turn, catalyzing the Malpai Group. This perception is inside out, however. Drought follows rain in the Southwest, and lightning follows drought. Fires are a natural and inevitable result. What requires explanation, then, is not the fire that happened but the century without significant fires that preceded it—and the consequent notion that fires are somehow exceptional. Similarly, what is truly odd about the Malpai Group is not its existence or its good fortune but its rarity—the fact that it stands out so starkly against “normal” experience. It is the norm, not the exception, that cries out for explanation in this case. Virtually everyone supports the goal of conservation in the West. If it is to be realized, efforts and achievements like the Malpai Group’s will have to become as unremarkable as a July fire, and vice-versa.

Chapter 1: Crisis, Consensus, and Conservation

As you know, over the past thirty-two years we have lived, worked, and raised a family here in the borderlands. Our great grandparents arrived in the 1880s, less than twenty years after the Civil War and long before the floodgates of the modern world opened, and began to change so many of the beautiful lands in the U.S. We are blessed to live in a place that has remained much as it was when our ancestors first saw it. And like them, we’ve always felt in our bones the specialness of this country, and the ranching way of life. Every year that passes we feel more keenly than ever that it is our duty to safeguard these treasures. Over time, we have worked with neighbors to solve the many problems that faced us as rural ranchers. In recent years, though, we have been confronted by a range of new forces undermining both our way of life and the health of our lands, forces that seemed beyond our control.

                    — from a letter to neighbors by Wendy and Warner Glenn, 1994

  Photos by Jay Dusard.
Ranch with stream.

The Geronimo Trail fire provided the spark that ignited the Malpai Borderlands Group, but it cannot explain what came before or after: the development of the fuels or the flames’ subsequent spread, so to speak. From a larger perspective, there is no single person or event from which the group sprang and no simple way to explain it. It arose from a complex of intersecting crises, some local and some regional or national in scale, and its success is attributable to the combined efforts of many very different people. Along the way, a series of events occurred that in retrospect appears to have been critical in arriving at the present. Without any one of these people and events, things might have gone differently. One cannot tell the story without appearing to privilege one or another part of the whole, if only by the order of introduction. But at every step, it was the combination of people and events that mattered. Perhaps most important were the relationships that developed along the way, providing the confidence and the capacity to respond to events in new ways. No one could have done what the Malpai Group has done—no one would have even tried—without other people making the leap alongside them. “Malpai will never do anything to someone—we will only do something with them, at their invitation.” This credo has guided the group from its inception, expressing and reflecting the fundamental priority given to voluntary cooperation. No matter how important certain individuals or institutions have been, the strength of the group has come from the community of people acting together. What community means, exactly, is a question that runs throughout the chapters of this book.

The Landscape

The Malpai Borderlands Group defines its primary planning area as bounded to the south by Mexico, to the west and north by Arizona Highway 80 and New Mexico Highway 9, and to the east by the edge of the Gray Ranch. It encompasses the Animas Mountains on the Continental Divide, most of the Peloncillo Mountains, which straddle the Arizona-New Mexico border, and the upper portions of the San Bernardino, San Simon, and Animas valleys. It is high and dry country. The valley bottoms lie between 4,000 and 5,000 feet above sea level and receive, on average, about twelve inches of moisture per year. Atop the mountains, at 7,000 to 8,500 feet, precipitation averages rise to as much as twenty inches per year. These averages, however, disguise wide variation from month to month and year to year. A single storm may drop four inches, whereas in the worst droughts that much rain may not fall in twelve months. The heat, wind, and aridity can evaporate one hundred inches of water in a year—nearly ten times the amount that falls from the sky.

Map 1.
Top, Map 1: Location of Malpai Borderlands Group planning area.
Click map for larger view.

Map by Darin Jensen.
Bottom, Map 2: Landownership in the Malpai Borderlands Group planning area.
Click map for larger view.

Map by Darin Jensen.
Map 2.

The Malpai Group’s boundaries reflect both its mission and the current state of land use in the area. The pressures of subdivision and residential real estate development are highest where paved roads provide ready access to the outside world’s services and amenities. The city of Douglas (population 15,000) lies just off the southwestern tip of the planning area, face to face across the border with Agua Prieta, Sonora (estimated population 150,000); two small towns, Rodeo and Animas, New Mexico, are located along the highways that define its northern edge. Apart from a nineteen-mile stretch of county highway south of Animas, though, no paved roads penetrate the interior of the planning area, where ranches dominate and the landscape is unfragmented except for fences and dirt or gravel roads. Livestock are raised on all but two properties: the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge and a small research ranch tucked up in the Peloncillos. Several large ranches straddle the northwest side of the triangle, running up into the Chiricahua Mountains, and for this reason there is a “secondary planning area” that takes in those mountains. But this also introduces the complication of subdivided lands along the highway outside Douglas and more recently around Rodeo.

Landownership may be the most important and difficult factor in the Malpai Group’s efforts to conserve and enhance this landscape. Private ranchers own slightly less than three-fifths of the land in the primary planning area. The states of Arizona and New Mexico own almost a quarter, and federal agencies own the rest (slightly less than one-fifth). These figures are skewed by the enormous Gray Ranch, whose 272,000 acres of private land are anomalous. Without the Gray, the Borderlands are fairly typical of ranch lands in the Southwest: a roughly equal mix of private (41 percent), state (34 percent) and federal (25 percent) ownerships. The federal land is further divided into national forest, BLM, and national wildlife refuge property. Ecologically, of course, all these types of land are interconnected and interdependent. But each has its own legal, political, and economic attributes and constraints.

It is critical to understand that the different types of ownership are not randomly distributed across the landscape. The earliest private land—now the national wildlife refuge—dates to the Spanish Colonial period, when Ignacio Pérez founded the San Bernardino Ranch around a complex of springs and streams straddling today’s international border. The water was abundant and pure, and the adjacent floodplain was carpeted with giant sacaton, a prolific grass well suited to livestock. The soils there, formed by periodic deposition of fine flood-borne sediments, were far more productive than anything found in the surrounding hills and mountains. Pérez cleared fields from the floodplain and planted corn, beans, squash, and fruit trees. In 1820, he petitioned the Crown for 73,240 acres, and two years later he acquired the land at auction from the newly independent Mexican state. In the 1830s, however, Apache unrest forced him to abandon the ranch. His cattle went feral, and the land grant hung in legal limbo for nearly fifty years following the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, which brought present-day southern Arizona into the U.S. Ultimately, the courts confirmed title to 2,383 acres in favor of former Texas Ranger John Slaughter. The rest of the original grant lies in Mexico, where it is still a private ranch known as Rancho San Bernardino. Most of the U.S. portion was bought by the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1982 to protect rare native fish.

Cowboys with cattle on open range.
  Top photo by Will van Overbeek.
Bottom photo by W. Ross Humphreys.

The San Bernardino was endowed with more water than any other location in the Borderlands, but the same basic principle persisted through the homestead period: private land was carved out where surface water could be found. Any settler aspiring to make a living from the land immediately recognized that water was the key resource, whether for crops or livestock. The Homestead Act and its successor laws permitted settlers to claim only limited areas of private land—between 160 and 640 acres—based on the assumption that crop agriculture would form the backbone of the economy. Only wealthier “settlers” such as George Hearst and his partners (and to a lesser extent John Slaughter) could afford to circumvent the statutes by enlisting others to file claims on waterless land—this is how the anomalous Gray Ranch came into being in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Actual homesteaders could only hope to own a few fields and pastures and to leverage a measure of control over the surrounding range by monopolizing the water. As windmills and wells became more common around 1900, homesteaders became less dependent on natural surface waters, but they continued to concentrate along washes and floodplains where groundwater was shallow.

Gradually the land not homesteaded passed into various kinds of public administration. The higher parts of the Peloncillo and Animas Mountains became forest reserves in 1906 and later were consolidated into the Coronado National Forest. After Arizona and New Mexico attained statehood in 1912, portions of the valleys became state trust lands. What remained—generally the least productive lands—remained open for homesteading until the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 and are now administered by the Bureau of Land Management. All of these lands were divided into large pieces, fenced, and leased to the owners of nearby private parcels; together, the leased allotments and the old homesteads formed viable ranch units. The Gray Ranch, again, was an exception to this pattern. In 1952, the Forest Service traded away its holdings in the Animas Mountains to the owners of the Gray, creating the only privately owned mountain range in the region.

This historical process has produced a legacy of enormous ecological consequence. In general, the private land in the Borderlands, as in the West as a whole, lies along streams and rivers or around springs and seeps. It tends to be located where the soils are richest and where floodwaters deposit the most rainfall in the form of run-off. This concentration of nutrients and moisture makes the private lands more biologically productive than the surrounding uplands and mountains. Thus, even where private lands are a small part of the landscape, what happens there has a disproportionate impact on the ecosystem and its inhabitants, particularly wildlife. The future of these ecosystems thus depends largely on the use and management of private lands.

Drum Hadley

Ranchers sometimes joke that ranching is a genetic defect—something you inherit and can’t be rid of, no matter how you try. The humor relates indirectly to their obsession with the genetics of their cattle and their ongoing struggles to cull underperforming animals from their herds. Directly, it draws on the contradictory experiences of running a ranch: exasperating, exhausting, unpredictable, an emotional and financial roller coaster, yet irresistibly fulfilling and beautiful. It is a way of expressing the sentiment that they love it in part because there is so much to hate about it—the toil and frustration somehow contribute to the love, not unlike raising children.

Drum Hadley with border collie.
Drum Hadley training his border collie.
Photo by Jay Dusard.

Telling the joke also helps bridge the gap between the two ways people can get into ranching, by birth or by purchase, and this is perhaps where the real humor lies. Very few people get rich from livestock ranching, but many rich people have become ranchers, sinking significant wealth from other sources into a livelihood that has long been economically irrational. They could make better money in the stock market, or even in treasury notes. Yet since its beginnings in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Western ranching community has been a blend of people born into it—economically marginal and sporadically culled by debt, drought, and the market—and people of substantial wealth who ranch because they love it and who can afford to lose money in the cattle business. The joke is often told in the company of both types, and it helps affirm their common predicament and efface their other disparities. If ranching is a defective gene, dominant among those born into it, the rich apparently have it in its recessive form. The Malpai Group includes both types, and if they couldn’t joke about it, they probably wouldn’t be able to work together effectively.

Drummond Hadley is a supreme example of the second type of rancher. Born into the Anheuser-Busch fortune, Drum came to the Southwest to attend the University of Arizona. He studied English and poetry, and through family connections befriended Gary Snyder and other luminaries of 1960s alternative culture. But the rugged Southwestern landscape drew him more strongly than the protest movement. In 1971 or thereabouts, he pushed his saddle through the border fence and walked to the Rancho San Bernardino to find work as a vaquero, a cowboy. It was ancient work, some three hundred years old in northern Mexico and centuries older at its origins in Spain. It combined culture and landscape, work and play, tools and techniques, songs and stories. For two years it absorbed Drum and Drum absorbed it. He came back, just barely, in 1973 when he bought the Guadalupe Canyon Ranch along the international border in the southern Peloncillo Mountains.

In the 1970s and 80s, Drum and his wife, Diana, raised their children and managed the ranch and gradually became trusted members of the local community despite Drum’s utterly un-rancher-like idiosyncrasies and dispositions. Poet, cowboy, iconoclast, and visionary, he cultivated radical ideas about the land and an unusually broad circle of friends. Guadalupe Canyon became a cross between a laboratory and a salon. Drum managed his cattle to restore Guadalupe Creek by keeping them out of the riparian corridor during the summer, when young trees could establish. He rearranged his fences to make pastures reflect the landscape’s topography instead of cadastral section lines. In late-night gatherings, he honed his ideas in conversations with ranchers, writers, environmentalists, and scientists. He continued to work and socialize with old-timers on both sides of the international border, collecting their stories and distilling them into poems. Drum credits one old cowboy in particular, Walter Ramsey, with teaching him that the range had previously had more grass and fewer shrubs. From scientists, Drum learned that shrub encroachment was at least partially due to the absence of fires since the 1890s, and he became an ardent advocate of bringing fire back.

There is a long list of birds and plants that are fairly common in Arizona but found nowhere else in New Mexico except Guadalupe Canyon. Like those species, Drum refuses all human boundaries. The whole Malpai Borderlands, he points out, was until fairly recently “a horseback culture,” in which the international border was more or less irrelevant. Someone looking for something—flour, a spare part, a dinner companion—was as likely to ride across the line as they were to go into town by car. This borderless equestrianism ended in the 1970s, according to Drum, with the building of Mexico Highway 2, which runs east from Agua Prieta to Janos, Chihuahua. By U.S. standards it is a small highway—two rather narrow lanes and virtually no shoulders—but it is busy enough to pose a barrier to local, everyday, horseback riders. In their place are outsiders passing through at sixty miles per hour, scarcely noticing the landscape. Drum feels the loss acutely, and preventing it from spreading further into the Malpai Borderlands is a cause that stirs him to poetry, to philanthropy, and occasionally to profanity. Drum is credited as the source of many of the ideas that have raised the Malpai Group to prominence, but the implementation of those ideas has been led by ranchers with still deeper roots in the area. We will meet them in subsequent chapters.

Jim Corbett and the Malpai Agenda

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, relations between ranchers and environmentalists had reached new lows. On road signs in rural ranching areas, bumper stickers were appearing that read “Cattle Free by ‘93”—the slogan of a national campaign to end public lands grazing. Across Arizona and New Mexico, public and private agencies—The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management, in particular—were buying ranches and removing the livestock, to the delight of environmentalists and the frustration of ranchers. At livestock association meetings, the “enviros” were routinely called communists or agents of the UN. One Tucson activist published a large book called The Waste of the West, which argued that ranching was a vast socio-cultural conspiracy, degrading minds as well as land. Beneath a graphic picture of a decaying carcass, he wrote: “As a warning to stop our ranching-reform efforts, a local stockman shot our dog, skinned it, and dumped it near our house.”

Jim Corbett working on fence.
Jim Corbett at work in the San Pedro Valley.
Photo by Sterling Vinson.

Drum Hadley found this atmosphere poisonous and counter-productive, and the Geronimo Trail fire underscored his point. Ranchers and environmentalists alike could see the value of letting it burn, he felt, yet it had been extinguished. This was frustrating, but also humbling for Drum and his neighbors. Clearly they did not have much influence over the Forest Service’s decisions regarding fire, and this seemed but one of several realms in which their autonomy was eroding. They took pride in acting together to solve collective problems—in recent years they had organized to bring electricity, telephones, and school bus service to the San Bernardino Valley and the Peloncillo Mountains. But new threats seemed beyond their control: the Forest Service’s fire policies, the loss of grasslands to shrubs, the loss of ranchlands to suburban development, and the rising opposition of environmentalists. In Warner and Wendy Glenn’s words, “our children could look forward and see they wouldn’t be able to make it ranching.”

In porch conversations, Drum urged his neighbors to organize, as they had done before, but also to reach out to their critics. He believed ranchers and environmentalists could resolve their differences, or at least they could get along with each other—he had friends in both camps, after all, and his ranch was living testimony to his view that livestock and the environment were not incompatible. As he saw it, the problem was ignorance, born of a lack of communication: ranchers had failed to explain their situation and their way of life to the outside world. To remedy this, Drum invited some environmentalists he knew to meet with some of his neighbors to discuss their goals and their differences. Included were the head of the New Mexico Audubon Society, which had taken an interest in Guadalupe Canyon, as well as activists from Gila, New Mexico. Some of the environmentalists wanted to meet at a “neutral site,” but Drum insisted that they gather on a ranch, and the first meeting took place at the Glenns’ Malpai Ranch in September of 1991, two months after the Geronimo Trail fire.

One of the regulars at these meetings was Jim Corbett, whose role in the Malpai Group was small but seminal. He came to the area in the 1980s as a leader in the Sanctuary Movement, a network of civic and religious groups who operated a modern-day underground railroad for refugees fleeing the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala. Over and over, Corbett walked through the canyons of the southern Peloncillos, tracing paths to the border fence, where he met small groups of refugees and guided them into the U.S. He said little, at peace with his thoughts and the desert nights even while engaged in actions the federal government considered felonious. In a highly publicized trial in 1986, a jury found him not guilty of smuggling aliens—the government’s case was weakened by the fact that his voice never appeared on their secretly recorded tapes. He passed away in 2001 on a small farm in Cascabel, in the opposite corner of Cochise County from the Malpai Borderlands.

Drum was a well-heeled cowboy-poet, and Jim was an ascetic pastoralist-philosopher, but they hit it off right away. Both could sympathize with and evoke respect from ranchers and environmentalists. Corbett had studied at Harvard and worked as a farmer, a cowboy, and a goatherd in Arizona and in Mexico. In the late 1980s and the 1990s he had watched his friends and neighbors in the Cascabel area feud bitterly with environmentalists over livestock grazing along the San Pedro River. The Nature Conservancy had purchased a large, legendary ranch called the Muleshoe and removed all the livestock. When the BLM agreed to let the Conservancy retain leasehold without grazing, a neighboring rancher sued. Many locals’ feelings toward the Conservancy, the federal government, and environmentalists are to this day colored by the battles of that period.

The idea of a dialogue between ranchers and environmentalists may well have been Jim’s. As a Quaker, he found the animosity regrettable and the tactics high-handed. Partially in response, in 1988 he had helped found the Saguaro-Juniper Association, a consensus-based organization dedicated to an area of land located between the San Pedro and the Muleshoe. Saguaro-Juniper owns and leases land and grazes livestock under a covenant, in both the real estate and the religious senses of the word. The covenant includes a “bill of rights for the land”: to be free from human-accelerated erosion, to evolve without human scarring or domination, and not to have its constituent elements treated as “mere commodities.” If this sounds like conventional wilderness protection, it’s not. Corbett believed that human communities are part of the natural world, not outside of it, and that striving for sustainable coexistence with nature is both a spiritual and a practical calling. In 1991 he published Goatwalking: A Guide to Wildland Living, a Quest for the Peaceable Kingdom. It is a meditation on living in the desert, on human spirituality, and on the role that livestock can play in both. It begins this way:

Two milk goats can provide all the nutrients a human being needs, with the exception of vitamin C and a few common trace elements. Learn the relevant details about range-goat husbandry and something about edible plants, and with a couple of milk goats you can feed yourself in most wildlands, even in deserts.

Civilized human beings don’t fit into untamed communities of plants and animals, as members of the community. Instead of adapting to wildlands, we tame them. The goat-human partnership can fit in, which opens a way for errantry. Goatwalking is errantry that takes the goat-human partnership’s adaptation to wildlands as its point of departure.

Errantry is primarily concerned with communion, which in our age focuses on the harmonious adaptation of human civilization to life on earth. The first, decisive step into errantry is to become untamed, at home in wildlands. To be at home in wildlands, one must accept and share life as a gift that is unearned and unowned. When we cease to work at taming the Creation and learn to accept life as a gift, a way opens for us to become active participants in an ancient exodus out of idolatry and bondage—a pilgrimage that continues to be conceived and born in wilderness.

Corbett’s philosophy turns the conventional arguments about ranching and conservation inside out. Instead of being radically opposed, livestock and wilderness become mutually reinforcing, even mutually dependent. Goats make it possible for a person to live in wilderness, and living in wilderness makes it possible to achieve—or at least glimpse—communion with nature and spirit. Valuing nature in its own right and becoming at home in wildlands are thus seen as goals made possible by livestock, in both a human-evolutionary sense and in an individual’s practical life.

The big Western sky.
  Photo by Jay Dusard.

Through the fall of 1991 and the first half of 1992, Drum and Jim and a growing assortment of others continued to meet periodically. Ray Turner, an ecologist, Saguaro-Juniper member, and Drum’s father-in-law, joined them and became a regular, providing a relatively independent scientific voice. They began to call themselves the Malpai discussion group, after the Glenns’ ranch, although the meetings rotated among ranches in the area. In Quaker fashion, Jim pressed for consensus: focus on identifying where all parties could agree, and agree to disagree on other things. On the issue of livestock grazing, consensus was elusive, but common ground emerged on two related topics: everyone preferred the land open and undeveloped, and everyone was concerned about the replacement of grasses by shrubs. Even those who disliked livestock agreed that ranches were preferable to subdivisions, at the very least because the grasses needed fire and fire could not be restored where houses dotted the landscape.

The last meeting of the discussion group was held at Drum’s ranch in July 1992. From it came the founding document of the Malpai Borderlands Group, anonymously authored by Jim Corbett. “The Malpai Agenda for Grazing in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Bioregions” began by describing the polarized battle between ranchers and environmentalists. “To reverse this polarization, which is a no-win situation for the land and everyone concerned, the ‘Malpai Meeting’ proposes that a concerted effort be made to identify the conservational common ground that unites all of us who love the land, then to create programs in which we can work together to implement the values we share.” One may love wilderness “as an Eden unspoiled by human sins” or as a specific place where one lives and raises a family, Corbett wrote. These have different roots, but “in both cases ‘love’ means valuing the land in itself, and this is the foundation for establishing basic rights for native biotic communities.” He then restated the covenant ideas of Saguaro-Juniper and Goatwalking, contextualized in social and political, rather than theological, terms:

In the Sonoran and Chihuahuan bioregions and most of the arid West, ranching is now the only livelihood that is based on human adaptation to wild biotic communities. Few dispute that livestock have done serious damage and continue to do so in some places. Few dispute that yearlong, sedentary grazing will degrade plant communities in arid lands. To continue in this bioregion, livestock grazing must discontinue practices that degrade the land. The real issue is the preservation of the last remnant of the livelihoods based on human adaptation to wildlands—pastoral adaptation that seeks to fit into the untamed biotic community, not to remake the land and replace its natives to fit our civilization.

All who love the land agree that it should not be cashed-in or mined-out and that its health takes precedence over profits. They agree in their opposition to “development” that bulldozes and fractures the land, drains away its waters, and poisons it with wastes. In debates that pit preservation against development, all who know and love a wildland are on the side of its preservation. Conservationists who are ranchers are divided from many other conservationists by their belief that ranching can be stewardship that preserves the health and unreduced diversity of the native biotic community.

Much more is at stake here than the future of a few ranch families. Wildlands teach those for whom they are home an outlook and insights to which others are blind. Some of these lessons take many generations to learn… These lessons come hard, and no society that eradicates or discards those among its members who have acquired this kind of wisdom can mature into a people that is truly at home in its land. How to fit-in responsibly, as supportive members of a native biotic community, is a meaningful question only for those who live by fitting-in somehow.

These paragraphs do not so much resolve the rangeland conflict as transcend it. That ranching must respect and protect the ecological values of the range is granted outright. No environmentalist could ask for a higher standard than “the health and unreduced diversity of the native biotic community.” Yet the value to which this standard is linked is not native biodiversity in itself but the physical and spiritual well-being of humanity, and in this connection ranching assumes a role that environmentalism can neither claim nor discredit, no matter how bio-centric or altruistic it may purport to be. People must learn to live with the land. “Protected” areas where people are excluded cannot teach this. Consider ranching by comparison to all the other ways people make a living in our society, and no matter how grave its flaws or its historical misdeeds, it stands out for its dependence on native biota and unaltered landscapes. Its lessons and knowledge—its wisdom—thus become crucial for the effort of society as a whole to become “truly at home in its land.”

On this basis, the Malpai Agenda proposed three program areas. The first was called simply Common Ground. “If ranchers and anti-grazing conservationists can agree on conservation principles, the resolution of many of their differences would be a matter of verifiable facts. They would then have a common ground for cooperation, study, and joint efforts. Conservationists who disagree about livestock grazing on arid lands but who agree to seek a resolution of their differences should meet to discover whatever conservation ethic they share.” The second, Information and Education, called for more systematic monitoring and research on biotic change in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan bioregions. Such efforts would help ranchers improve their management and provide opportunities for the general public “to learn firsthand on both sides of the border about ranching, range management, and concerns about livestock impacts on native biotic communities.”

The final program area, Base-Community Development, articulated a vision of the political institutions necessary to achieve conservation in a landscape of multiple public and private landowners. “Livestock have been most destructive in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan bioregions when the common use of land hasn’t been matched by community decision-making. Where community decision-making is undeveloped, everyone may see what needs to be done to save our common heritage of life-supporting soils, waters, native plants, and wildlife, but no one can do anything about it. Where a community agrees about its conservation principles and how to implement them, it can enact its land ethic as the law of its land, formulated in conservation covenants.” This would put local landowners in a position of parity with larger institutions. Locals would be “partners rather than patients” in relation to federal agencies and national environmental groups, empowered “to protect their land when outside agencies seek to institute uses and developments that would degrade and damage it.”

The goal was the same as in Goatwalking and Saguaro-Juniper—harmonious relations both among people and between people and land. Pointing to the San Pedro River, Corbett noted that partnerships with landowners were often undermined by the emphasis placed on land acquisition. Instead, conservation easements should be used to protect landscapes and local livelihoods together. “When such conservation easements are broadened into mutually binding agreements that obligate the federal government, local landowners, and nongovernmental conservation organizations to observe the same rules or practices (regardless of future shifts in federal policies), they become covenants that establish among all parties a genuine partnership in conservation. A viable land ethic is far more likely to be established and to persist by means of voluntary, pluralistic ‘private law’ of this kind than by political contests, new statutes, federal regulations, and expropriation.”

A consensus had been reached among a small group of ranchers and environmentalists regarding ranching and conservation. The Malpai Agenda diagnosed the problem as a political one, and it proposed a solution that combined science with a new, locally driven and more collaborative political approach. It did not specify what should be done, exactly, but rather how things should be done—a process by which to make decisions in pursuit of a viable land ethic. The discussion group had fulfilled its purpose of encouraging dialogue and clarifying issues, and it did not meet again.


The Malpai Agenda didn’t say a word about fire, and only a handful of local ranchers had participated in its formulation. But fire suppression was the clearest example of the need for greater input from local landowners into government land management policies, and the Geronimo Trail fire illustrated the point vividly. The suppression of that fire, over the objections of the rancher whose land was burning, struck everyone in the local community as egregious. For some it was primarily an ecological issue—the grasses needed fire to compete with the brush. For others, it was a classic example of government waste—why spend money putting out a fire that threatened no one’s life or property? For most of a century, the Forest Service had diligently extinguished fires in the area, just as it had in the West as a whole, and no one had objected. Now, however, opinion had changed. The energy and ideas contained in the Malpai Agenda emboldened Drum and the Glenns to speak out, and to do so collectively with their neighbors. Wendy and Warner invited every landowner in the area to meet at the Malpai Ranch.

On March 28, 1993, consensus was reached again, this time among thirty people from nineteen ranches and the refuge. “We, the undersigned, are committed to the development of a fire management plan for the area encompassed by the ranches we represent. We request that the agencies involved coordinate with us in the development of this plan.” It was an announcement presented as an invitation: We will develop a fire plan, and we ask that you coordinate with us. They began to assemble a map that showed what each landowner wanted done if a fire broke out: let it burn, decide at the time, or suppress immediately. Each ranch provided a contact name and phone number (telephones were a fairly recent development at that time), which were included in the map legend. They asked Ron Bemis, a range conservationist with the Soil Conservation Service, to help coordinate the effort.

Four weeks later another meeting was held, at the Gray Ranch, with representatives from all of the agencies: the Coronado National Forest, the Arizona and New Mexico offices of the BLM and the Soil Conservation Service, the Arizona and New Mexico State Land departments, the New Mexico State Forester’s Office, and two conservation districts. Bill McDonald, Drum Hadley, and the Glenns reiterated the ranchers’ desire to see fire returned to the landscape. Ray Turner presented evidence of long-term vegetation change in the borderlands, away from grasses and towards shrubs, and suggested this was due to fire suppression. Guy McPherson, another prominent grassland ecologist, emphasized the importance of hot, summer fires to kill the shrubs: this was the natural fire regime, he said, triggered by monsoon lightning.

Then, each agency representative spoke. They explained that in both states, fire suppression was the law. Letting a fire burn required a prescription—a careful plan specifying conditions of temperature, wind speed, humidity, and so on—approved ahead of time. The Forest Service was interested in allowing more fires to burn, but it needed coordination across landownership types as well as fire prescriptions. Simply letting naturally ignited fires burn wouldn’t be sufficient, they pointed out. Ranchers would need to remove their livestock for a year or two before and after fires, to allow fuels to build up and grasses to recover. Finally, fire had to be a means, not an end in itself: some defined goals were needed to justify all the burning and to measure the effectiveness of a fire plan.

The meeting ran across two days. At the end, consensus was reached for a third time. Agencies’ fire control policies would henceforth be “informed and guided by the management goals of the ranchers.” In the short term, the fire map would be completed and a protocol developed to coordinate fire response among different agencies in the two states. Over the longer term, a fire-management plan would be developed for the region as a whole, with clear goals and a commitment to large prescribed burns. To advance this agenda, an agreement was drafted and signed committing the agencies to “a coordinated, comprehensive ecosystem management approach” in the area. This would not be limited to fire but would seek “to enhance and restore the use of natural processes in these ecosystems, to improve their renewable resources, to provide for wildlife habitat and productivity of grasslands, and to sustain rural and grazing livelihoods.”

Ron Bemis in workshop.
  Ron Bemis, former Malpai Coordinator for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Photo by W. Ross Humphreys.

Three moments of consensus had been attained over the course of eighteen months: first among a small group of ranchers and environmentalists on the subject of ranching, then among all the local landowners on the subject of fire, and finally among landowners and government agencies regarding cooperative management of the area’s ecosystems. A core group of people—Drum Hadley, Bill and Mary McDonald, Ray Turner, and Warner and Wendy Glenn—had participated in all three, pulling together an unusual coalition that included all the major “stakeholders” in the area’s landscape. Each group had gone on record voicing support for one or more of a set of basic goals and principles: preventing subdivision and residential development, returning fire to the landscape, protecting native flora and fauna, and making decisions cooperatively. These moments of consensus endowed the group with a kind of authority to act in behalf of the landscape they shared.

Consensus rarely comes quickly, and the time spent in all these meetings was considerable. But the effort was rapidly gaining momentum. A year later, in 1994, the Malpai Borderlands Group was formally incorporated as an independent not-for-profit corporation. In name and philosophy, it descended from the discussion group and the Malpai Agenda. It no longer contained ranchers and environmentalists in roughly equal numbers, however. The Malpai Group’s by-laws stipulated that one board member would be a scientist and the rest would be local landowners. Environmentalists and agencies would be partners, but private landowners would lead. By this point, however, another event had intervened and caused several of the landowners to withdraw: The Nature Conservancy had bought and sold the Gray Ranch, briefly becoming the area’s largest landowner. Instead of simply leaving, moreover, the Conservancy had thrown its support behind the Malpai Group, at the Group’s invitation.


Nathan F. Sayre is an assistant professor of geography at the University of California, Berkeley. His other books include The New Ranch Handbook: A Guide to Restoring Western Rangelands and Ranching, Endangered Species, and Urbanization in the Southwest: Species of Capital.
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Title photo, looking west from near the town of Animas, New Mexico with the Chiricahua Mountanis in the distance, by W. Ross Humphreys.  



Working Wilderness: The Malpai Borderlands Group and the Future of the Western Range, by Nathan F. Sayre.




Malpai Borderlands Group

Drum Hadley's Voice of
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National Grassbank Network



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