SDCP desert scene  - Illustration by Bill Singleton
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A Vision For Ranch Conservation

Historically, ranching has probably been the single greatest determinant of a definable urban boundary in eastern Pima County. While over half of our 2.4 million acre region appears to be open, unused land, virtually all of this open space is used in ranching, an extensive but low-intensity land use. Through the conservation of working ranches that surround the Tucson metropolitan area, vast landscapes of open space are preserved, natural connectivity is maintained, and the rural heritage and culture of the Southwest are preserved.


Ranch Conservation

The conservation of working ranch lands protects vast areas of open space
and preserves the heritage and culture of the Southwest.

By virtue of the ongoing land stewardship and management provided by ranchers, ranch lands in Pima County are uniquely suited to preserve natural, unfragmented open space, habitat, and the land's natural and cultural resource values.

Land Ownership
In eastern Pima County, there are approximately 1.4 million acres, comprising a mosaic of private and public land ownership, presently dedicated to ranching. Virtually all of the larger ranches manage both privately owned and leased public lands.

Generations of Ownership
Most ranches are family-owned enterprises, often representing the descendants of original homesteaders who established ranching operations in the late 1800s.

Defining the Urban Boundary
Viable ranching maintains a compact urban form which fosters urban neighborhood and commercial area reinvestment and keeps the costs of growth to a minimum by utilizing existing infrastructure and facilities. To prevent unwanted urban sprawl and unregulated development, Pima County will encourage viable and sustainable ranching operations.

Threat from Development
Despite its benefits, ranches and the natural and cultural landscapes they protect are now threatened with urban encroachment and fragmentation as a consequence of the conversion of ranch lands to real estate development. Increasing difficulties with ranching, such as on-going drought or legal challenges to grazing leases, combine with growing expectations of lucrative land sales to fuel this trend. State grazing leases can also be terminated for sale for development. Today, ranch land fragmentation is greatest within a 25-mile radius of the Tucson urban core.

Compatibility with the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan
Ranching has been found to be compatibile with the goals of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan as an extensive, but low-intensity, land use. Ranching is uniquely able to preserve the integrity of vast tracts of connected and unfragmented open space and wildlife habitat. Therefore, conserving operating ranches, maintaining the economic viability of ranching, and providing creative, voluntary conservation options will provide the greatest level of landscape and watershed conservation.

Early Commitment
Pima County has participated in ranch conservation efforts since the 1980s, contributing to the preservation of the Empire, Cienega, Empirita, and Posta Quemada Ranches as working ranches. The remaining portion of Agua Caliente Ranch has been preserved as a natural area park and its ranch buildings have been restored. More recently, Pima County purchased the Robles Ranch, Carpenter Ranch, and Canoa Ranch to preserve the historic ranch buildings and private lands and to allow for public uses. Pima County will continue its commitment to help retain working ranches and to “keep ranchers ranching.”

Priority Resources
The selected Priority Ranch Conservation Resources include:
• Altar Valley, Empire-Cienega Valley, Upper Santa Cruz Valley, San Pedro Valley, and the Ironwood Forest National Monument area of the Avra Valley are the subareas where ranching comprises a significant land use, and where grazing capacity and stability suggest the best potential for future sustainable ranch use. Ranches in these valleys have the best potential to define the urban boundary, where developing lands give way to natural open space.
• The areas that are least likely to retain ranch uses in the future are the areas in the Middle Santa Cruz Valley adjacent to the Tuscon urban core and portions of the Tortolita Fan.

Conservation Tools
Mechanisms to conserve ranches include voluntary donation or sale of conservation easements, limited or selective development, diversification of ranching operations, or acquisition. Because it is largely rising property values that create the vulnerability for land conversion near the urban core, it is clear that some kind of acquisition program from willing sellers will be useful. Acquisition in fee simple and acquisition of development rights have both been successful in Southern Arizona. The Empirita Ranch and Posta Quemada Ranch are properties purchased by Pima County, while maintaining their grazing leases through cooperative arrangements with local ranchers.
However, purchasing ranches may not be the best answer for ranch conservation. Purchasing ranch lands should be the last option for conservation explored. Ranchers should remain on the land to continue economic activity and ranch land management using the best grazing practices. Priority methods of ranch conservation should use purchase of development rights and conservation easements as the most desired method of actual long term conservation.

Sonoran ranching desert scene  - Illustration by Bill Singleton

Evaluation Process
Development of the Ranch Conservation Element of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan was the result of a unique cooperative effort between Pima County staff, ranchers, range scientists, and natural resources scientists who comprised a Ranch Conservation Technical Advisory Team. The Ranch Technical Team defined working ranch areas, evaluated factors such as the extent, productivity and capacity of ranches, and the threats that could affect their viability. The team analyzed those areas where ranches had the highest and lowest potential for conservation.
Planning units based on watershed areas were used for analysis. In assessing the extent of ranch lands within each planning unit several factors were compared. The total acreage of the watershed, the percent of that land base in ranch use, the number of ranches, grazing capacity, connectivity or lack of fragmentation, and the percent of federal and state land were all taken into consideration.
In assessing threats to the viability of continued ranching, the average cost of an acre of land, the percent of private land that is not ranched, the existing zoning, the number of parcels, access, proximity to the urban core, and the amount of land slated for sale in the near future by the State Land Department were compared.

Conservation Stategies
The following recommendations are offered to fill the gaps in existing land management practices in order to support the Ranch Conservation Element of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.
• Establish a program that provides certainty for long-term State, BLM and Forest Service leases.
• Establish a voluntary and fairly constructed Purchase of Development Rights program for Pima County and ranch owners.
• Establish a means to compensate ranchers for decreases in their investment/purchase value of grazing leases at a certain stocking rate should the animal unit numbers be decreased by an agency.
• Effect changes in the property tax laws that allow a “conservation classification” for private lands for their open space values for rural property owners who enter into a conservation easement agreement.
• Build flexibility into the State Statute that mandates 40 head of livestock as a minimum requirement for agricultural land tax status, especially in drought years or after fire events.
• Establish a “grass banks” program which would allow ranchers to “rest” pastures more frequently or perhaps after prescribed burns which require about three years of resting for the grasses to come back.
• Create partnerships with ranchers for mutual landscape conservation goals.


Ranch Conservation Map (PDF)


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Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan
Pima County Administrator’s Office
130 West Congress, 10th Floor
Tucson, AZ 85701


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