A Vision For Ranch Conservation
ranching has probably been the single greatest determinant
of a definable urban boundary
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
space are preserved, natural connectivity is maintained,
and the rural heritage and culture of the Southwest are preserved.
The conservation of working ranch lands protects vast areas
of open space
and preserves the heritage and culture of the Southwest.
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.
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.
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
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.
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,
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.
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.”
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
• 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.
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
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.
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
the extent, productivity and capacity of ranches, and the
threats that could affect their viability. The team analyzed
areas where ranches had the highest and lowest potential
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,
number of ranches, grazing capacity, connectivity or lack
of fragmentation, and the percent of federal and state land
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
of land slated for sale in the near future by the State Land
Department were compared.
recommendations are offered to fill the gaps in existing land
management practices in
order to support the Ranch Conservation Element of the Sonoran
• 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
• 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
Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan
Pima County Administrator’s Office
130 West Congress, 10th Floor
Tucson, AZ 85701