Preserving the San Rafael Valley

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Vast grasslands surrounded by mountains make up the San Rafael Valley - JONATHAN HOFFMAN
  • Jonathan Hoffman
  • Vast grasslands surrounded by mountains make up the San Rafael Valley

If one looks at a map of Arizona, one would see a big blob of National Forest which includes the Patagonia Mountains to the West, the Huachuca Mountains to the East, bordering on Mexico to the South, and extending North into the Canelo Hills almost to the town of Sonoita. It is usually colored green on the map—except for a large white rectangle extending from the Mexican border right up the middle. The white rectangle is the San Rafael Valley named after the original San Rafael de Zanja Spanish land grant. The white color indicates deeded property owned by people, as opposed to the green color indicating government property administered by the Forest Service.

The valley floor (the white rectangle) is a vast rolling prairie of native grasses, sparsely populated by trees and people. The headwaters of the Santa Cruz River are in the San Rafael Valley. The Santa Cruz flows south into Mexico, then turns back into the valley where it continues north eventually flowing (sometimes) through Tucson and beyond.

Ranching is the local industry in the valley. It has been so since the Spanish introduced cattle 300 years ago. Signs at the intersections of roadways are typically long lists of ranch names with arrows indicating a right or left turn.

During the environmental activism of the late seventies and early eighties, there were clear battle lines. Environmental absolutists saw developers, miners, and yes ranchers, as the bad guys. Many a young eco-warrior would declare the very presence of cows as a destructive force on the land, ruining water sources, and displacing native species. With tools in-hand, and a copy of Edward Abbey’s "The Monkey Wrench Gang" in their pockets, they would engage in “direct action” (vandalism) against the imagined evildoers.

Today’s eco-warriors have swapped the monkey wrench for the amicus brief and are doing their fighting in the courtroom.

There is no fighting in the San Rafael Valley. The ranchers there are both the users and the preservationists. It is not surprising that people take good care of that which they own. After 300 years of ranching, the valley is a beautiful, ecologically vibrant community that supports around 15 threatened or endangered species. It is a demonstration that commerce, in this case ranching, is not necessarily incompatible with environmentalism.

Jim Rorbaugh of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Tucson describes the role of the rancher in maintaining the balance of commerce and preservation that has been achieved there, “Right now we have that here with the ranching community that is really invested here economically and through their heart in protecting this and keeping it an open space…I think that they have an investment here that goes beyond money. That’s quite clear. People love the land out here, and it’s an easy place to love.”

It is nice that the San Rafael Valley has been sustained for the last few centuries, but what of the future? Mutual interests leading to voluntary relationships leads to a solution. There is a tool that is used by the Nature Conservancy and other preservation groups that fits well with ranching. A usage easement, or more specifically a conservation easement, is a contract between the landowner and the preservation group that restricts the use of the land. It may, for example, restrict development to ranching, but no more, and can last for many decades. The conservation organization wins because there will be no housing developments or other commercial activities eating up the open space, and the rancher wins because he gets some cash up front, the ranching culture is preserved, and in some cases the land value goes down providing a tax advantage. Over 80 percent of the private land in the San Rafael Valley is protected by such contracts.

This is called a win-win, all without going to war, vandalism, predatory lawsuits, SWAT Teams, or armored vehicles. Voluntary relationships and associations that lead to mutually beneficial agreements win. This is how a free society works.

San Rafael Valley sunset - JONATHAN HOFFMAN
  • Jonathan Hoffman
  • San Rafael Valley sunset

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