Fish and Wildlife Service Meeting on San Pedro River Wildlife Refuge/

Cooperative Conservation Area

Thursday, September 22, 2011, Central Arizona College at Aravaipa, Arizona


Fish and Wildlife Service Attendees:  Steve Spangle, Ecological Services, Phoenix; Jeannie Wagner-Greven, Fish and Wildlife Service, Albuquerque; Jean Calhoun, Fish and Wildlife Service, Tucson; and Bill Radke, Cooperator with the Malpais Borderlands Group and Manager of the San Bernardino and Leslie Canyon National Wildlife Refuges.


Cascabel Working Group/Saguaro-Juniper Attendees:  Barbara Clark, Bob Evans, Nancy Ferguson, Mick Meader, Sue Newman, Tom Orum, Elna Otter


Bill Dunn, Chair of the Winkelman NRCD, convened the meeting at 3:00 pm in the college cafeteria.  The cafeteria was filled to capacity, with 100 or more people attending.  Steve Spangle began the discussion and was followed by comments from Jeanie, Jean, and Bill.  The introduction to the initiative was fairly brief, with most of the time left to discussion generated by the audience.  Steve and others specifically mentioned that this was a very preliminary concept that was best termed a Cooperative Conservation Initiative.  Much coordination would be required for this concept to become reality.


The initiative would potentially include a National Wildlife Refuge designation along the river, but all traditional uses of the land would remain in effect, no rules would be imposed upon land owners, and no land would be purchased, unless some land owners wished to sell or participate in conservation easements.  A map was distributed that showed a refuge envelope that encompassed a strip two miles wide on either side of the river.  Most deeded ranch land occurs within this strip.  All landowner rights and privileges would be retained.  Ultimately the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service would decide on whether to designate a wildlife refuge, and the landowners would be cooperators with the federal government in managing it.  The Blackfoot Challenge partnership ( was offered as a model for a San Pedro River cooperative initiative, which would be overseen by a local governing board.


Many of the large ranches up and down the San Pedro were represented, and in general the audience was hostile.  Many of the initial comments dwelled on past perceived wrongs of government and the Nature Conservancy’s management of its land in the area.  Meeting attendees expressed a great deal of pent-up anger against governmental agencies in general and spoke at length about past governmental actions that were harmful or misguided.  Distrust of and anger with the government tended to dominate the conversation.


Issues raised by the audience included the following:


·       Where will the money come from to purchase any land, to manage the refuge, and to provide funds for cooperative projects?  Some of the money would come from Section 6 mandates of the Endangered Species Act, the Duck Stamp program, the Land and Conservation Fund (funded by offshore oil and gas royalties), and appropriations.  There are priorities for funding, and funding is limited.

·       Would State Trust Lands within the refuge envelope become part of the refuge?  Ranchers were concerned that this could be taken away from them.  They cannot risk losing their state grazing leases.  Jeanie noted that none of this land would be incorporated into the refuge but would remain under state control.  The federal government would not try to appropriate or purchase it.

·       Even if no restrictions are placed on landowners, this would increase the burden upon anyone owning land within the refuge envelope (Andy Smallhouse).

·       If land were purchased, this would remove it from the tax rolls.  Already most of the land in Arizona is owned by governmental or tribal agencies.  Only 13% is privately owned.

·       Even though the proposal is presented as having no impact upon current private landowners and private land use, it would likely have unintended consequences.  Even though no additional regulation is promised, an official designation of protection leads to attempts at regulation by others.  Ranchers would live with the fall-out (Stefanie Smallhouse).

·       The Fish and Wildlife Service is severely underfunded, and the current budget situation makes it very unlikely that this will be remedied.  Where will the money come from to run the refuge?  Steve (?) noted that lawsuits have been filed in the past by conservation groups because of insufficient follow-through on conservation projects.

·       Ranchers are the best stewards of the land and manage it carefully.  Government cannot provide the kind of oversight over the land that ranchers themselves can.

·       The Natural Resource Conservation Districts already do a good job.  If this is so, why is this initiative needed?

·       Landowners should be given the right to opt out entirely from having their land encompassed by the refuge.  Jean noted that this was possible, but landowners could not opt back in at a later date if they changed their minds.

·       Stefanie mentioned the contradiction between having one branch of Interior attempting to route a project like SunZia down the valley while another such as the Fish and Wildlife Service was attempting to protect the valley.  Why do these agencies not talk to one another?

·       Peter Else of the Friends of the Araviapa Region mentioned the need for collective action to protect the valley from the encroachment of development like that occurring on the northwest side of the Catalinas.

·       Bob Evans of the Cascabel Working Group noted that although those of us in the valley have differences, we all share the desire to protect the valley’s natural character and traditional practices and that we need to work together to ensure this.


Near the end, Bill Radke said that we needed to focus on what we had in common.  Can the Fish and Wildlife Service be a partner, or is it something to fear?  Pinal County Supervisor Pete Rios mentioned his county’s comprehensive land-use plan and the amount of public input that went into it.  He noted that the area next the San Pedro River was designated as “mountainous area” that was not to be developed.  Finally, one of the more sympathetic members of the audience noted that the big problem was one of trust.  The NRCDs have shown that cooperation works.  How do you build trust?


Final Thoughts


What this meeting made apparent was the enormous threats that the ranching community feels it faces.  Perhaps the greatest of these, although not specifically mentioned, is the difficulty with surviving financially in today’s world with a changing food economy and the long drought that we have had.  It has become very difficult to make money at ranching.  Thus an entire way of life seems threatened.


This leaves many ranchers facing the prospect of having to sell their ranches, and other ranchers cannot afford to buy them because they would be unable to make enough money to recover the cost.  Many ranchers, Andy Smallhouse included, would not to sell to the government or the Nature Conservancy, and this leaves these ranches vulnerable to development.  Thus both the ranching tradition and the ability to protect the land are imperiled.  Andy noted that the constant struggle with governmental regulation, threats of infrastructure development, and financial difficulties make it less likely that his children will stay in ranching and continue to manage the Smallhouse ranch.  Without his children doing so, it will be very difficult to keep the ranch operating.


Perceived threats to ranching include increasing governmental regulation, the efforts of conservation groups to protect evermore land, and increased urban development that requires evermore power and resources be routed to them.  Of particular concern is State Trust Land reform, which would place significant areas of Trust Land into conservation status.  This could effectively kill many ranches.  Although not explicitly stated, an additional threat is the increased demand by urban dwellers and others for access to ranch lands for hunting and recreation as well as their desire to own rural land to escape the city.


Even though this meeting was fairly hostile, I felt that it was essential to have it and to introduce the valley to the Cooperative Conservation Initiative.  For this initiative to succeed, it needs to protect and further traditional ranching as much as anything, and the ranching community must be centrally involved in managing and overseeing the initiative.  Ranchers would have to see it as potentially safeguarding their ranches for it to be successful.  The difficulty is convincing them that it genuinely may do so.  The distrust and disbelief is enormous.


I hope that with time the ranching community can see this initiative as an advantage, but that will be a long, difficult road.  Perhaps the example of the Malpais Borderlands Group ( in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona is one for everyone to look to.  That initiative combined conservation and ranching interests in a way that preserved traditional ranching when it otherwise might have been lost.  Perhaps with time such a cooperative and self-sustaining effort can be established here.  The long-term protection of the valley and its way of life would seem to require something like it.


Fish and Wildlife Service Contacts (for reference):


Steve Spangle:, (602) 242-0210

Jeannie Wagner-Greven:, (502) 248-6667

Jean Calhoun:, (520) 670-6144

Bill Radke:, (520) 364-2104


Mick Meader, September 29, 2011

Member, Cascabel Working Group and Saguaro-Juniper Corporation

(520) 323-0092,