It started because of fire. Actually, it was a lack of fire — 80 years of wildfire suppression — that brought a band of ranchers together to form what's become one of the world's largest experiments in ecosystem management.

Ranchers in the Malpai Borderland region of the desert Southwest had long known they needed controlled fires to maintain healthy rangelands for their livestock. But, state and federal land management agencies had another say in the matter, so bureaucracy and red tape ruled.

But, by using a cooperative and businesslike approach, the ranchers succeeded in working with these agencies. In 1995, they burned 6,000 acres of grass-choking brush. The so-called “Baker Burn” was no small effort — requiring coordination from two countries, two states, four ranches and six agencies.

From that core group of ranchers, with a cadre of agency personnel, the Malpai Borderlands Group (MBG) — was born. Now, officially 10 years old, it has evolved into one of the most powerful and visible collaborative ranching organizations in existence.

Beyond Fire

“We knew all along we could get things done by working together,” says Wendy Glenn, Douglas, AZ. She and husband Warner own the Malpai Ranch, which serves as MBG headquarters and its namesake.

“For 30 years, by working together we'd been able to get things like telephones, school bus service and rural electricity — sometimes against huge obstacles,” she says. “It didn't take long until we had a major fire program underway — and, we knew it was just the beginning.”

There were other concerns on the minds of the ranchers who held lands stretching east from Douglas well into the “boot heel” of New Mexico.

Subdivisions were eating up open space and economic conditions were separating cattle and cattlemen from communities. Many outsiders and politicians misunderstood and mistrusted ranchers, imposing rules and laws where they weren't wanted and, some felt, weren't needed.

“There are no more new frontiers,” Warner Glenn explains. “If we have any hope to keep this land intact for ranching and pass this land on to our children, we've got to find ways to preserve what we have.”

That doesn't mean turning back the clock, not embracing innovation or not recognizing that the industry is in a global marketplace. “We just have to work together to keep a balance between our ranching operations and a healthy natural environment,” Warner notes.

The Primary Tools

Conservation easements (see sidebar on page 30) have become a primary, albeit controversial, tool for MBG — mainly to preclude subdivision and preserve open country. MBG cooperators are sensitive to the elements of conservation easements.

“Ranch management and conservation easements are two different things here,” says Douglas rancher and MBG executive director Bill McDonald. “We believe every rancher should run their ranch as they see fit,” he says.

Ranching innovations have played important roles in the Malpai.

The Grassbank concept was coined in the early years of the MBG by local rancher and writer Drummond Hadley. A grassbank provides grazing on one ranch for another rancher's cattle in return for placing an equal conservation value on his or her land.

“The original grassbankers had the choice of trading their easements for grass,” Wendy Glenn says. “This accomplishes two goals: the rancher's own resource is rested, and that land will never be subdivided and developed.”

Last year, MBG acquired a key easement on a 43,000-acre ranch designed to stem subdivision development and protect an important wildlife corridor in the foothills of the Chiricahua Mountains northeast of Douglas. The easement was the largest and most expensive of the 12 acquired so far by the MBG.

“More area ranchers are becoming comfortable with us and the easements we hold,” Wendy Glenn adds. “The reality of a 1-million-acre block of ‘working wilderness’ is getting closer with each easement.”

Partners In Perpetuity

Central to MBG is the 502-square-mile Gray Ranch. Straddling the continental divide along the New Mexico/Mexican border, this historic ranch participates as a sister institution and participating ranch with the MBG.

Once owned by a Mexican billionaire, the Gray Ranch was bought by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) for $18 million in 1989. The TNC later sold the Gray Ranch to the Animas Foundation and a Hadley family limited partnership — heirs to the fortunes of Anheuser-Busch. The ranch is still subject to land use easements held by TNC, but operates as a commercial cattle ranch. The Gray Ranch acts, in part, as a grassbank for the MBG.

“Our board recognizes the value of grassbanking and its role in helping ranches in this region manage through times when grass is short,” says Gray Ranch program director Ben Brown. “It fits our vision of preserving the ranching heritage of this region.”

Brown also works with MBG in research projects on the effects of fire and grazing on vegetation. Brown has been active in expanding MBG's Science Advisory Panel, which oversees the collection and interpretation of data covering a wide array of scientific disciplines.

MBG cooperators are quick to point out TNC is one of the many conservation groups working with MBG in an advisory capacity. That relationship with TNC, along with the mere idea of ranchers protecting endangered species, raises a lot of hackles.

“Oh yeah, we catch a lot of flak about our relationship with TNC,” McDonald says. “But, we would not be where we are today without their help, and that of the Gray Ranch.”

Oddly enough, McDonald says, most of the criticism MBG receives for working with TNC now comes from outside the region.

“Most of the ‘conspiracy theory’ talk has died down. Unfortunately, most of our detractors don't know much about what we do,” he says.

So, in a sprit of communication and outreach, MBG began annual “Ranching Today” workshops, two-day events designed to share a look at the MBG landscape and its scope.

Lately, MBG's logic has skipped across the border into the Janos Grasslands Project in Chihuahua, Mexico. That project's aim is to restore native grasslands and promote range management practices to help sustain cattle ranching in the region.

Janos project coordinator Sonia Najera wants to duplicate much of what she's learned from visiting the Malpai.

“We're also losing grasslands to development in the Janos,” says Najera from her TNC office in Las Cruces, NM. “We see in the MBG a safe environment in which to extend conservation services.”

Najera thinks the same kinds of relationships can be duplicated in Mexico.

“If so,” she says, “maybe we can help more northern Mexican ranches stay intact for future generations.”

Today, after working to bring nearly 1 million acres of un-fragmented land under the MBG umbrella, fire is still a main management tool. In fact, last year's 48,000-acre “Baker Burn 2” is believed to be the largest successful prescribed burn in the U.S.

“We're still finding barriers and skeptics to efforts like this,” Wendy Glenn says. “But, the results are well worth the work.”

The Malpai Borderlands

The Malpai Borderlands encompasses nearly 1 million acres of mountains, canyons and broad arid valleys along the northern confluence of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. Living in one of the most remote and sparsely populated areas of the continent, the ranchers of the borderlands are feeling the pressure of an expanding world.

The Malpai Borderland Group's 35 participating ranching units, composed of private land, state trust lands, federal forests and rangelands, have been recognized worldwide for their efforts to maintain a ranching lifestyle while living in concert with the natural resources of the land.

Conservation Easements

A conservation easement is a legal agreement in which a landowner voluntarily conveys certain rights generally associated with land development to a qualified organization for safekeeping.

The Malpai Borderlands Group (MBG) is eligible to hold conservation easements to protect ranching, wildlife and watershed values.

  • MBG is 90% rancher cooperators. Their easements don't convey language that assigns any management of the landowner's cattle to MBG.

  • Landowners can choose to sell easements to MBG for cash or trade them for Grassbank access.

  • Ranchers entering into a conservation easement give up potential development value. MBG is primarily concerned about stemming subdivision.

  • MBG easements are tailored to fit the individual landowner's needs. They can prohibit certain activities and allow others.

  • The easements can be written to allow termination if changes in state or federal public grazing lease uses associated with a ranch make the goals of the easement unattainable.

  • If MBG stops functioning, landowners can place their easements with another qualified holder. If a qualified holder can't be found, the easement can be revoked.

  • The easement can't be revoked if the landowner chooses to use the easement for tax-reduction purposes.

  • MBG tries to compensate landowners who convey easements and aren't able to take full advantage of any tax benefits that might otherwise be available.

  • The landowner can sell or lease the ranch at any time. The terms of the easement go with the property and remain in force.

  • MBG donors includes a cross-section of individuals and foundations, from General Motors, Liz Claiborne and Orvis, to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the Public Lands Council.