Southwest Environment

Stories written by University of Arizona students

Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science
The Stories

Pima County works to protect local ranchlands

By Alyson Head

Pima County had made a move to save some of the few remaining expanses of grasslands in the Tucson area by purchasing them. The $138 million in land and lease purchases, part of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, was designed to create a continuous habitat for many of Arizona’s native species. But this is no walk in the park for the people involved.  A lot of work lies ahead, county officials indicated.  

“It’s really sexy to buy a piece of land, and it’s less so to manage it,” said Brian Powell, program manager of the Pima County Office of Sustainability and Conservation.  

Now the county must figure out how to manage this large area of diverse, and in some cases degraded, land parcels with limited resources with the added task of maintaining a healthy ecosystem while incorporating the historic and cultural use of the land, he indicated. Despite these challenges, according to the county, the outcomes are made worthwhile by helping the environment while potentially saving Pima County taxpayers’ some money in the long run. 

Spending money can mean saving money
By 2008, Pima County had purchased a total of 45,489 acres outright, according to Powell. This land – along with another 127,280 acres of land that are leased from the state or for which grazing rights were purchased – are part of the Ranching Conservation Element of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. The SDCP is a comprehensive plan designed to preserve the natural, historical, and cultural integrity unique to Pima County.

The plan was created in response to Pima County’s increase in urban development due to the rapid population growth throughout the last decade. According to a case study by Mark Benedict published by The Conservation Fund in November of 2005,  one acre of desert is lost to development every two hours.  According to county documents, this often results in Pima County paying more in services to support this “wildcat,” or unregulated, development than it receives in property taxes.

The Ranching Conservation Element supported the goals of the conservation plan by purchasing private land that is interspersed in public land managed by the state and federal agencies, as noted in a county overview of the SDCP. The purchases were made strategically so that it results in protecting approximately 1.4 million acres of open land from development while allowing for the continued historical use of ranching on this land.

The county accomplished this by purchasing the land from private ranchers and allowing them to continue to use the land instead of selling it to urban developers seeking to build, a common choice for ranchers facing the dilemma of what to do once they are no longer physically able to work. In the past, the next generation would then take over, but this is happening less often as ranching becomes a diminishing way of life.

Challenges faced by county
With such a large area of land now in the county’s possession, it is no surprise that a few challenges arise when it comes to managing the land toward a sustainable system.  

While officials are pleased to have secured such a large area, the significant size of this land has also given the county a run for its money. The land comprises many parcels varying in ecological condition. Understanding the ecological condition is an important part for the people trying to decide what management practices should be applied.

“Each ecological site has a different potential for growing vegetation, in both amount and species,” said Mitch McClaran, professor of range management in the University of Arizona’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment.    

Assessing site quality is a tedious but important task.    

”It is hard to have an intimate knowledge of every hectare,” McClaran said. A hectare is about 2.4 acres. “It is hard to know how healthy every part of the ecosystem is.” 

Government budget cuts haven’t made things easier, either.  An area of land this large requires more people and resources to assess the existing conditions, decide and develop different management practices. The planning process also must include the public before the county can implement the management practices.  With the weight of decreased funding on its shoulders, the county cannot spare the money to hire the amount of people necessary to perform these tasks, including gathering the necessary information and holding public meetings. 

“The county has been hurting like other organizations.  We don’t have enough people on the ground to properly do it,” Powell said. 

However, there may be some hope, Powell indicated, if the country can receive help from volunteers and university students seeking experience in their field.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Pima County Officials, Powell indicated, is incorporating both the environmental issues, such as protection of the Sonoran desert tortoise, and the cultural aspects of ranching into an effective management plan.

“When you want to manage a large landscape and livestock are part of the mix, it isn’t easy and it’s not free,” McClaran noted.   

Ranching has been a part of Southwest culture for a long time; however, it has not always been beneficial to the ecosystem. According to McClaran, a lot of the land degradation in the Southwest today results from overgrazing that occurred between the 1880s and 1910s.

Now the important question is how much use can the land take and still be able to recover. To address this issue, the county limits the number of cows the ranchers can graze on the land purchased by the county.  This doesn’t always please the ranchers, for whom raising cows provides for their source of income.

Advantages to the people
Despite the many challenges, Pima County citizens can rest easy knowing they won’t be emptying their pockets. 

“A cup of coffee and a quarter bagel is what it costs each taxpayer per month.” Powell said, noting each Pima County taxpayer will pay about $3 per month for the servicing of the 15-year bonds purchased for acquiring the land. 

In fact, the county may have managed to save taxpayers some money by preventing unregulated development on the land. According to a public document by Pima County, unregulated development accounts for 40 percent housing made for population growth in the surrounding area. These unregulated developments lack basic infrastructures such as paved roads, sewage, and other utilities. The residents of such developments often expect the county to provide them with these things, which typically results in a higher tax rate for Pima County citizens.   

While there is a lot of work left to be done, it is clear that the county is working toward a goal that could make the county a better place in which to live, McClaran indicated.  The task is daunting and Pima County officials certainly have their work cut out, but as McClaran puts it, “The question is: Is this a better world?  I think it is.”


Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan for Pima County, Arizona.

Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan ranch conservation plan

Pima County report on unregulated development

Pima County report on sources and uses of tax dollars

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