The early ’90s were a tenuous time to be a public lands rancher. The rallying cry of “Cattle Free by ’93” rang loud, and sometimes violently, within the environmental-activist crowd. Even state and federal land management agencies seemed to think it was a good idea.

It was against this tumultuous backdrop that two Northern Arizona ranches looked back at their historic past and forward to an uncertain future.

“We were running into quite a bit of conflict with other public land users,” remembers Bob Prosser, who along with his wife, Judy, run the Bar T Bar ranch headquartered in Winslow, AZ. That conflict had both the Bar T Bar and the neighboring Flying M, owned by Jack Metzger, wife Mandy and his sister Kit, worried whether they had a long-term future on the land.

So, the two families took a decidedly non-traditional approach to the situation. In 1993, the year the environmental activists had targeted for their demise, they called a community gathering in Flagstaff. There, they proposed an unlikely alliance they dubbed the Diablo Trust, named after Diablo Canyon, which forms a boundary between the two ranches. The idea was to develop a collaborative process that included the wide and disparate views and agendas from ranchers, state and federal agencies, wildlife enthusiasts, academia and environmentalists.

It’s likely that other ranchers in the West thought it was more of an unholy alliance than an unlikely one. The thought of inviting the very people who wanted cattle off public lands to be part of a collaborative management process designed to keep the ranches in business was a concept beyond comprehension.

But to the Prossers and the Metzgers, it made sense. Continued conflict wasn’t getting them anywhere. In fact, it was moving them backward, draining time and energy away from being good stewards of the resource, and exacting an emotional toll that ultimately threatened their very existence.

“We had never really connected with the public,” Kit Metzger says, “but we were hearing all this talk about what everybody else wanted to see out here. So we thought we need to invite all the people who come out here on the ground or have something to do with managing the ground, and see if we can come up with some common goals.”

What is the Diablo Trust?

And so, against the backdrop of “Cattle Free by ’93,” the Diablo Trust was born.

It’s not a “trust” in the fiduciary sense of a land trust or a conservation easement. Rather, the “trust” comes from the heritage of the West’s ranching tradition where a word was a commitment and a handshake sealed the deal. The Prossers and the Metzgers knew that for sustainability, a trusting relationship that holds the collaborative group together was essential.

What it is, then, is a forum and a venue where ranchers, environmentalists, federal and state land managers, scientists, recreationalists and others work together to achieve a variety of shared goals. Ultimately, however, their goal is to create an environment of trust and interdependence that will allow the two ranches to carry over to the next generation.

Said succinctly, its mission is: “Learning from the land and sharing our knowledge so there will always be a West.” That’s not a nostalgic statement, the group says on its website. “On the contrary, it reflects our forward-looking commitment to working ranches as long-term, economically viable enterprises, while maintaining unfragmented landscapes and restoring native ecosystems.”

The Diablo Trust works toward that goal by involving 26 collaborating groups that represent various public land users, and the state and federal agencies that manage those lands, ag groups and universities. The land area of the two ranches is roughly 426,000 acres of intermingled private and public land. Approximately a third of that 665-square-mile area is private land, with the rest owned by either the Forest Service or the Arizona State Land Department, on which the ranches have grazing permits.

The Diablo Trust has a full- and part-time paid staff. Monthly meetings are open to anyone who wants to participate. A 10-person board of directors oversees its activities, which are spread out between several working groups that conduct projects in wildlife management, watershed improvement, land and forage management, and monitoring and data collection, among others. Its funding comes from donations, grants and the two ranches.

But its heart and soul is the land, and its promise is the example it sets – that collaboration is better than conflict and working together accomplishes much more than working apart.

“There are 4-5 billion acres of land on this planet with similar topography, geology and climate to the American West,” says Jack Metzger. “If these American ecosystems aren’t used as a global laboratory, then where on this planet – with what money and parallel sources of academia, land agency expertise and educated people living on the land – will this be done? And when will we start?”

Does it work?

While all that looks good in concept, getting people with widely divergent resource-management views to agree on much of anything is a daunting challenge. But the Diablo Trust seems to have found sufficient middle ground, with what its staffer Derrick Widmark calls the “radical center,” to accomplish some remarkable things.

“It has its moments…any kind of collaborative organization that relies on consensus building is difficult because it takes so long to make a decision,” says Judy Prosser, Diablo Trust president. “But, when you do come to a consensus, it’s a strong one and it’s supported by a wide array of people.”

An example is one of the first projects the group undertook, a project that endures even today. “The big push when we got started was to deal with the dwindling antelope population, the growing elk population and a limited amount of spring feed for all during drought years,” Bob says.

Given the emotional rhetoric of the time, the conventional wisdom held that cattle were causing the antelope herd to crash. But the Bar T Bar and the Flying M have always taken a very scientific, objective approach to ranching, and they felt such an approach was crucial within the Diablo Trust as well.

So, to answer the question of what was causing dwindling antelope numbers and resource damage, the Diablo Trust, with the support of the agencies and sportsmen, initiated an extensive utilization monitoring effort that drilled down to which herbivore ate what, how much, and at what time of year.
Out of that came a dataset that shed objective light on the situation, showing that cattle weren’t the issue; it was the elk.

Based on that data, the groups launched a collaborative effort to reduce the elk population due to its impact on the resource, particularly in the winter and spring. They didn’t stop there. They also launched an aggressive vegetative management and water-distribution effort, as well as modifying many miles of fence to allow better access for the antelope between pastures.

With help from the Diablo Trust and funding from the agencies, they’ve removed junipers from around 40,000 acres of private, state and federal lands since the mid ’90s. To determine the success of the project, radio collars were used to track the antelope.

“Prior to that, there had been very few antelope pass through those areas. After that, the telemetry on those antelope changed significantly and they started moving back in,” Bob says.

Winning converts

That was the first piece of hard data indicating that a century of encroachment by junipers was part of the antelope problem. By removing the trees, the habitat was regenerated and restored, very much to the liking of both the resident and migratory antelope. “With this data in hand, the Game and Fish became probably the biggest driver of the entire effort,” Bob says.

That monitoring and management effort continues today. “It’s the single largest utilization database in the state,” Bob says. “In fact, right now they’re talking about increasing the elk herd and that’s certainly substantiated by the data we’re collecting.”

Since then, the Diablo Trust has enjoyed additional success, including the development of a full environmental impact statement (EIS), backed by the Diablo Trust collaborators, that was presented to the Forest Service when the 10-year grazing permits for the two ranches came due.

“Doing an EIS was very innovative,” Judy says. “To my knowledge, it had never been done before. Six years of work and 650 pages. Needless to say, it has substance to it! We refer back to it all the time when we go out to do a project or talk to people about whatever issue comes up.”

It was also instrumental in keeping the two ranches viable. “We were able to maintain our permits, which could have had a big cut,” Kit says. “Then, we would really have had only one choice, and that would have been to start selling off (private land).”

However, because the private land is intermingled with public land, that would break up the open space that many public land users cherish. “So we had a lot of people help on that issue, a lot of support to maintain it as a working ranch and keep it open space, keep the wildlife values,” she says. “They could see the writing on the wall because Arizona has been subdivided so much.”

The Diablo Trust’s latest effort is called CROP, for Coordinated Resource Operational Plan. “The agencies have a real revolving door of people,” Kit says. “Just about the time you get them on board and they understand what you’re doing, they move up the ladder,” Judy adds. “And you start all over again with a new person.”

So the Diablo Trust produced a document that contains maps and a history of the projects they’ve been working on over the years. When new staff comes on board, they’re handed a copy of the document to get them up to speed with the trust’s past, present and future.

In the meantime, the Diablo Trust will continue to be an industry trailblazer as it works collaboratively to keep the “new” West, with its various and often conflicting philosophies, a place where ranches can still call home.

For more information on Diablo Trust, go to diablotrust.org.