Arizona Legislature Diverted Prop. 303 Money To Ranchers

Arizona voters passed Proposition 303 in 1998 to fund the Growing Smarter Act with the belief that it would provide $20 million a year for communities and nonprofits to buy state land to preserve it as natural open space. But very few of the voters knew that the Arizona Legislature had secretly included a clause to divert up to 10% of the money to subsidize public land ranchers.

The Growing Smarter Act was a response to the increasing concern among Arizonans that the sales of state land parcels located near urban areas, especially metro Phoenix, were facilitating urban sprawl and destroying natural areas. The issue was complicated by the fact that the Arizona Constitution requires state land to be sold or leased for the highest possible price to maximize revenues for public education.

Republican Gov. Fife Symington attempted to address the problem and succeeded in getting his Arizona Preserve Initiative (API) passed in 1996. But the API, which was amended by HB 2303 in 1997, was considered inadequate by most Arizona conservationists, so in 1998 they launched a petition drive to put the Citizens Growth Management Initiative on the fall ballot. It included strict limits on urban sprawl that scared land developers and prompted the Republican-controlled Legislature, with Republican Gov. Jane Hull’s support, to pass HB 2361, the Growing Smarter Act. The bill included urban planning and zoning reforms, but no funding for state land purchases.

Proposition 303

However, the same day the Legislature passed HB 2361, they passed a companion measure, HCR 2027, that put Proposition 303 on the 1998 ballot. If approved by the voters, the Arizona State Parks Board (ASPB) would receive $20 million a year from the state’s general fund for 10 years to purchase state lands for conservation purposes. But the language in HCR 2027 was deceptive. It ignored the fact that the Growing Smarter Act included a clause which said the ASPB could annually grant up to 10% of the money to ranchers. The clause stated that grants could be given:

“To an individual landowner or grazing or agricultural lessee of State or Federal land who contracts with the Arizona State Parks Board to implement conservation based management alternatives using livestock or crop reduction practices, or reduce livestock or crop production, to provide wildlife habitat or other public benefits that preserve open space.”

These provisions were the result of a backroom deal that Gov. Hull had made with Rep. Jake Flake, R-Snowflake, a cattle rancher, in order to get more support from rural legislators for the Growing Smarter Act. Many Arizona ranchers were worried the Growing Smarter Act might threaten their sweetheart grazing leases with the State Land Department. Also, long overdue enforcement of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was leading to reductions in the number of cattle permitted to graze public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Forest Service in order to protect important wildlife habitat from livestock.

The Proposition 303 Ballot Guide subsequently provided to the voters by Republican Secretary of State Betsy Bayless was deceptive too, because it failed to mention the provision to divert money to ranchers that was hidden in the Growing Smarter Act. Subsequently, when the voters passed Proposition 303 in the fall of 1998, very few of them knew they had also approved the distribution of millions of dollars of subsidies for ranchers.

The $20 million annual appropriations approved by Prop 303 were required to be deposited in the Growing Smarter land conservation fund, administered by the ASPB. The Board, however, was supposed to consider advice from the Conservation Acquisition Board (CAB) before awarding any type of Open Space Reserve (OSR) grants from the fund. The seven-member CAB had been created in 1997 by HB 2303, and was specifically tasked with making recommendations to the ASPB about approving grants from the land conservation fund.

Open Space Reserve Grants

The CAB began working on setting up the new Opens Space Reserve grant process in early 1999, and held several meetings to gather public input. Arizona’s competitive grant statutes required them to adopt official rating criteria in order to assess and prioritize the grant applications for approval. By the end of the year, however, they still hadn’t produced the application rating criteria for the grants to ranchers. Their lack of progress was understandable, because the language in HB 2361 that described the grants was indefinite and confusing, and they knew the grants would be controversial. Moreover, ranching subsidies were not an area of expertise for the five CAB members who weren’t ranchers.

Rep. Flake, however, was frustrated with the CAB’s lack of progress, and sent them a letter describing the legislative intent, as he understood it, of giving OSR grants to ranchers. He explained the primary objective was to provide financial assistance to those ranchers who grazed livestock on public land and had experienced mandatory reductions in their permitted livestock numbers. He claimed the grants would reduce the fragmentation of open space by reducing the economic pressure on the affected ranchers to subdivide their private base properties. (Ranchers with public land grazing permits usually run their operations from relatively small adjacent private parcels, called base properties.)

Then in January 2000 Flake introduced HB 2706 to clarify the legal description of the OSR grants to ranchers. The bill required the CAB to “give priority” to recommending grants to ranchers who were “lessees of state or federal land who are required to reduce livestock production to provide public benefits, such as wildlife species conservation or wildlife habitat.” This had the effect of directing all of the grants to public land ranchers, since the State Land Department rarely requires its grazing lessees to implement mandatory herd reductions. The bill passed in March and Gov. Hull signed it.

Meanwhile, at the November 1999 meeting of the State Parks Board the Arizona Department of Agriculture (ADA) had made a proposal to take over the administration of the OSR grants for ranchers. It was favorably received by the Board, and State Parks staff had subsequently worked on finalizing the plan with the ADA. The passage of HB 2706 likely provided some urgency to the matter, because on April 26, 2020, the ADA sent a memo to the CAB to formally propose their version of the OSR grants program. The CAB approved it and recommended that the Board approve it, with the following recommendations:

  • offer the CAB an opportunity to review the proposed criteria for rating grants;
  • report proposed grant awards to State Parks prior to awarding grant monies; and
  • report to State Parks annually on the progress of completing grant projects.

At the Board’s subsequent May 18, 2000, meeting, State Parks staff reported that they supported the CAB’s recommendation. Board Member Michael Anable commented he believed “the intent was to recognize there is another agency with more expertise in the technical criteria.” Before the Board voted on the transfer of the grant program, Anable succeeded in adding a requirement that the program would be reviewed by the Board in two years. The Board then unanimously approved the motion to transfer the grants to the ADA. The arrangement was formalized on October 4, 2000, when the Board signed an intergovernmental agreement with the ADA. This was despite the fact that HB 2303 had designated the CAB as the official advisory committee for all OSR grant applications.

Subsequently, on December 20, 2000, the ADA presented its proposed grant application rating criteria to the CAB, and the CAB unanimously approved it. Later that day, the ADA sent a memo to the State Parks Department which described the rating criteria, and explained they had been approved by the CAB. State Parks staff added the consideration of the ADA’s grant criteria to the ASPB’s January 18, 2001, meeting agenda.

Before the Board voted on the criteria at their January meeting, the ADA’s Assistant Director, Nicole Waldron, explained them. She said her agency had worked with the Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association to develop “an equation that they are comfortable with.” She added that Rep Flake had approved them too, and was “100% supportive.”

The grant eligibility criteria formula, she explained was intended to estimate the financial loss a rancher had experienced due to mandatory herd reductions on public land over several years – based on a 10-year average price for cattle. The Board approved the ADA’s criteria on their first vote with just a single no vote from Board Member Anable. He explained that, instead of cash awards, he had hoped the grants could be used to fund a cost-sharing range improvement program for ranchers with state land grazing leases. He convinced Board Member Sheri Graham to change her vote. But the Board, led by Chairman Walter Armer, a rancher, still approved the ADA’s grant rating criteria on a 5-2 vote.

Still, no Open Space Reserve grants were issued to ranchers in 2001 because the ADA was working with the ASPB to develop the application process. That was finished by the end of the year so in January 2002 the ADA held grant workshops for ranchers in four rural locations across the state, cohosted by State Parks and the Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association. They distributed grant application manuals and packets to local ranchers, and set a submission deadline of March 1, 2002. The grant manual explained that 1995 was being used as the “base year” for applicants, meaning the currently permitted number of livestock on their federal grazing permits would be compared against the number permitted in 1995 – three years before Proposition 303 passed. The difference would be the size of mandatory herd reduction for which compensation could be awarded. There was no financial needs test.

The ADA received 71 OSR grant applications and deemed 66 of them to be eligible. Assistant ADA Director Brett Cameron sent a recommendation letter to the ASPB on April 18, 2002, asking the Board to approve the 66 grants at their May meeting, and to also approve the ADA’s decision to implement a $90,000 per rancher maximum annual grant amount. The ASPB placed the ADA’s grant recommendations on their May 16, 2002, meeting agenda.

The meeting was held in the small town of Patagonia, in rural Santa Cruz County. Before the Board voted on approving the grants, two ADA representatives explained the grant application process they had used. The biggest criticism came from Board Member John Hays, a rancher and former Arizona legislator. He complained that the list of grants recommended for approval included some that would go to ranchers who weren’t “serious cattle people” but just “hobby ranchers.” He was likely referring to the following grant recipients:

  • Hal Earnhardt, son of millionaire auto dealer Tex Earnhardt – $90,000
  • Rex Maughan, millionaire owner of Forever Living Products – $32,196
  • Metz Trust – Forrest Metz, founder of Urban Engineering in Tucson $82,789
  • Boyd P. Drachman, owner of Drachman Insurance in Tucson – $7,870.17

Board Chairman Suzanne Pfister noted the administration of the grants was “clearly an evolving process.” She said she was personally concerned about enforcement of the terms of the grant contracts. The ADA representatives explained that the grants would be primarily enforced by an “honor system,” as their agency didn’t have the staff to do monitoring. They said they would have to rely on local federal land managers to notify them if the recipients weren’t complying with the mandatory herd reductions for which they were being compensated. Eventually, the Board voted to unanimously approve the ADA’s recommendation, and awarded just under $2 million in 66 Open Space Reserve grants to Arizona public land ranchers.

I was one of the many Arizonans who didn’t know that public land ranchers would receive grants from Proposition 303 money until the ADA released the grant applications and the ASPB approved the grants in 2002. I disagreed with the premise that the grants would help preserve open space from development by making public land ranchers less likely to subdivide their private base properties. There were too many holes in argument. First of all, the grant recipients weren’t required to sign promises not to sell their property. Also, most public land ranches in Arizona are comprised primarily of public land, which can’t be sold because it’s owned by the federal government. Furthermore, the fear that ranch base properties might get developed was exaggerated, because ranch base properties are already “developed,” as they typically include a house, at least one barn, some sheds, a junk pile, and denuded corrals and holding pastures. And, there was also no financial needs test, which ignored the fact that many public land ranchers aren’t really “in business” but engaged in a lifestyle choice or hobby. It seemed obvious to me that the grants were just financial compensation for public land ranchers whose grazing permits had been cut to protect important wildlife habitat, and I didn’t believe that people should be paid for complying with the law.

Perhaps my biggest criticism about the grants was that their eligibility criteria weren’t drafted using Arizona’s official public rulemaking process. I thought more people than the Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association should have meaningful input. So on October 15, 2002, I used my legal right under A.R.S. § 41-1033 to submit a Petition for a Rule or Review to Arizona State Parks Director, Kenneth Travous, that asked him to initiate the state’s official rulemaking process to draft new eligibility criteria for the 2003 round of OSR grants to ranchers.

Democrat Janet Napolitano Elected Governor 2002

Soon after that, Democrat Janet Napolitano won the governor’s race in the November election. I hoped her administration would be less enthusiastic about the OSR grants to ranchers program. The ASPB may have been worried about that too, because on December 11, 2002, before Napolitano took office in January, State Parks Chief of Grants, Andrea Madonna, sent me a letter in response to my petition. It explained that the Board had voted during their November meeting to bypass the state’s regular rulemaking process and engage the emergency rulemaking process for the grants, as per A.R.S. § 41-1026.

On December 17, 2002, I replied with a letter to Board Chair Suzanne Pfister in which I pointed out that, according to A.R.S. § 41-1026.A, the emergency rulemaking process can’t be used,  “if the emergency situation is created due to the agency’s delay or inaction and the emergency situation could have been averted by timely compliance with the notice and public participation provisions.”

I didn’t receive a response, so I decided to attend the Board’s February 20, 2003, meeting in Phoenix to get some answers. During the public comment period at the beginning of the meeting I explained my concerns about the existing grant eligibility criteria. Then I stayed through the rest of the meeting and was pleased when State Parks staff reported to the Board that the emergency rulemaking process couldn’t legally be used to draft eligibility criteria for the grants. They also explained that, because of the need to conduct the regular rulemaking process, there wouldn’t be time to issue grants for 2003. Director Ken Travous responded by telling the Board that, “We are working with Mr. Flake to get this grant program exempted from the rulemaking process and having it transferred over to the Department of Agriculture.” I wondered who he meant by “we.” So on February 23, 2003, I sent another letter to Board Chair Pfister asking if he meant the Board, since the director serves at the pleasure of the Board. I never received a response.

During the Board’s subsequent meeting on March 20, State Parks Assistant Director Jay Ziemann reported to the Board that he’d met with Rep. Flake, who was the new House Speaker, and also with ADA staff, some ranchers, and Gov. Napolitano’s office. They were working on legislation to transfer the entire program, including its $2 million per year appropriation, to the state Department of Agriculture.

The story of the Open Space Reserve grants for ranchers finally made the news in May 2003. On May 7 the Arizona Republic newspaper ran a front page article titled, “Arizona Grazing grants Draw Criticism.” The subtitle was, “$2 mill in tax money paid to cut herds.“ House Speaker Flake defended the grants, and said their main purpose was to keep ranchers “in business.” And when he was asked about the $90,000 OSR grant his cousin Gaylan Flake had received in 2002, he responded, “Boy, I’d be surprised if it was only one cousin. Most of my family is in ranching.” Flake also dismissed criticism that the language of Proposition 303 hadn’t mentioned the grants to ranchers, explaining that its passage had “triggered” the grants for ranchers clause in HB 2361. I took that as an admission of an intention to deceive the voters. The article also mentioned that Gov. Napolitano was working to improve the grant guidelines.

The Arizona Republic followed the article with an editorial on May 14 titled, “Whoa! Hold On,” and the subtitle, “Arizona needs tighter control on money given to ranchers.” It mentioned there was a bill pending in the Legislature that offered, “some hope of turning this into a system that does more to promote conservation and less to simply dole out money.”

Grants Transferred To Arizona Department of Agriculture

Then on May 19 the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a strike-all Senate bill, SB 1071, that transferred the grant program to the ADA. Gov. Napolitano signed it. The minutes from the State Parks Board’s July 17, 2003, meeting reported that the transfer of the grants for ranchers program to the ADA “made staff very happy.”

Under the new law, the $2 million annual appropriation for the grants would be deposited in the ADA’s new Livestock and Crop Conservation Fund. The ADA would be required to develop eligibility criteria for the grants, but the program would be uniquely exempt from the state’s rulemaking process. Instead, the ADA was required to provide the public with a 60-day comment period on the “annual grant guidelines and criteria, including public hearings.” Also, each grant recipient was required to submit “a written report detailing how the grant monies were used.” According to the ADA’s FY 2005 Annual Report, they didn’t issue any grants from the new Livestock & Crop Conservation Grant Program (LCCGP) in 2004 because they were busy setting it up. They did, however, hold four public hearing across the state to collect public comments on the proposed guidelines and criteria.

In January 2005 the ADA released the new grant eligibility guidelines for a public comment period. They were better than the ones that were used for the 2002 OSR grants. Instead of just handing out cash payments to ranchers, they allowed the applicants to use the grants to fund on-the-ground “conservation” projects. Some of the projects, such as building riparian area protection fences, were truly about conservation. But others, like constructing new livestock waters, and killing woody vegetation to grow more grass for cattle, were primarily subsidies.

Another major difference in the new LCCGP guidelines was that they allowed ranchers to use the grants as their personal contributions in order to be eligible for cost-share grants from other government agencies. In fact, in October 2004 the ADA had signed an Inter-Governmental Cooperative Agreement with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) that setup coordination between the two agencies in order to help ranchers use LCCGP grants in this manner in order to receive Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) awards from the NRCS. In other words, the LCCGP grants could be used to facilitate the distribution of other ranching subsidies, and there would be little, if any, out-of-pocket expenses for a rancher who could get a project funded using this arrangement.

The ADA released the finalized 2005 LCCGP grant Manual & Application Package to ranchers on May 29, and the set an application submission deadline of May 13, 2005. In the meantime,  they held five application workshops during April for ranchers in rural communities across the state.

First LCCGP Grants Issued 2005

There wasn’t any press coverage when the ADA announced the issuance of the first LCCGP grants on September 15, 2005. But the agency’s website showed they awarded 56 grants from 101 applications. The grants totaled about $3.4 million and they were reportedly used to leverage another $3.62 million in various matching grants from other government agencies. The descriptions of the LCCGP projects showed that 37 of the grants, about two-thirds, were used to construct new livestock waters.

The ADA subsequently issued the LCCGP grants on a bi-annual cycle, so the next grants weren’t dispersed until 2007, and then not again until 2009. Proposition 303 had only authorized 10 years of appropriations, so the $2 million a year stopped coming in 2011 – the last year that the grants were distributed from a full appropriation.

Since then, the Legislature has been unable to appropriate more money to the LCCGP grant program because of Proposition 105, the Voter Protection Act, which was also passed in 1998. It prevents the Legislature from amending voter-approved initiatives, including Proposition 303, unless the changes are approved by at least three-fourths of the members of both houses. Still, the ADA had enough money available to issue LCCGP grants from 2005 through 2016.

It’s difficult to assess the effectiveness of the grants now, especially since state law requires all state agencies to destroy public records, as per A.R.S. § 41-151.19, unless it’s determined they are important enough to be considered a “permanent” record, and OSR and LCCGP grant application records apparently weren’t given that status. (The law is intended to help foil lawsuits against state government.)

In late 2010, however, when the program’s annual appropriations were about to expire, the ADA issued a glossy color report titled Stories of Success to promote the grants. The report began with an homage to the program’s founder, legislator Franklin “Jake” Flake, who had died in 2008. But there was no mention of how the grants probably would have continued to just be cash giveaway payments if Gov. Napolitano hadn’t intervened in 2003. The report boasted that Arizona ranchers had used the LCCGP grants as cost-share contributions to leverage another $11.87 million from other government programs through 2009. And it provided examples of ranches in every Arizona county that had benefited from LCCGP grants.

Success Stories?

Some of the success stories in the report are reviewed, by county, below. The government financial assistance amounts shown below were obtained through information requests to state and federal agencies. Even though it’s public information, the agencies usually don’t disclose it, so it’s a tedious process to obtain it, especially when an agency keeps poor records. Furthermore, government agencies may purge some of their records when they attain a certain age. Subsequently, the information below may be incomplete, but that just means the ranches benefited from at least the amounts shown.

Government Assistance Program Key
AALB - Arizona Livestock Loss Board, Arizona Livestock Loss Board (federal/state)
AWPF - Arizona Water Protection Fund, AWPF Commission (state)
EQIP - Environmental Quality Incentives Program, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (federal)
The EQIP program absorbed the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) after 2014.
HPC - Habitat Partnership Committee, Arizona Game & Fish Commission (state)
Arizona Heritage Fund, Arizona Game & Fish Commission (state)
LCCGP - Livestock & Crop Conservation Program, Arizona Department of Agriculture (state)
Note: Open Space Reserve Grants became LCCGP Grants after 2002.
LFP - Livestock Forage Disaster Program, USDA’s Farm Service Agency (federal)
LRP - Landowner Relations Program, Arizona Game & Fish Department (state)
PFWP - Partners for Fish & Wildlife Program, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (federal)
WQIG - Water Quality Improvement Grant, Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (federal/state)
Note: These grants were previously called Section 319 nonpoint source (NPS) water pollution prevention grants.
Coconino County

The M Diamond Ranch has the permit to graze the Buckhorn Grazing Allotment, most of which is in the Coconino National Forest’s Red Rock Ranger District, with some of its easternmost pastures in the Forest’s Mogollon Rim District. The long and narrow 42,00 acre allotment is located east of Camp Verde along the north side of the West Clear Creek Canyon. The amount of government assistance that benefited the ranch during the last couple of decades is shown in the table below.

M Diamond Ranch (M Diamond Management Co. LLC) - Buckhorn Allotment
2002Heritage Fund$31,300West Clear Creek Riparian Fence
2004WQIG #5-012$119,100West Clear Creek Proposal
2004HPC #03-2-040$29,850Indian Flat Habitat Improvement (Cut Down Pinyon Pine & Juniper Trees.)
2004HPC #03-2-041$29,850Boulder Habitat Restoration (Cut Down Pinyon Pine & Juniper Trees.)
2005WQIG #6-019$224,177 West Clear Creek Tributary Watersheds
2005LCCGP #05-63$75,000Grassland Restoration & Erosion Control
2007LCCGP #07-58$26,100Fencing
2018HPC #17-204$20,000Buckhorn Allotment Livestock Water Enhancement
2018WQIG #20-006$71,364Buckhorn Allotment Livestock Waters & Juniper Tree Removal
$852,601TOTAL 2002-2018

In the mid 1990s grazing was excluded from a couple of the allotment’s pastures along lower West Clear Creek to protect the riparian habitat that’s home to some endangered species. The ranch was subsequently sold and in 2000 the current permittee began to implement a new livestock management plan which, according to the allotment’s 2010 environmental assessment (EA), increased cattle numbers from 19 head in 1999 to 254 head in 2008 – an increase of 235 head.

The increase was facilitated through projects funded with the help of government assistance. The projects included new fences to minimize the sizes of the areas excluded from grazing, while other fences were built to create new upland pastures. The projects also rehabilitated old livestock waters, built new ones, and destroyed pinyon and juniper trees to grow more grass for cattle.

These were typical range “improvements,” but the EA, and the ranch’s 2020 annual operating instructions (AOI), indicate that the ranch’s grazing system is based upon scientifically discredited holistic resource management (HRM) theories. The biggest difference between HRM and conventional science-based grazing systems is that HRM systems have higher forage utilization levels and pasture moves are based on timing, while science-based grazing systems employ conservative forage utilization rates and pasture moves are made to ensure them. There’s plenty of research that shows conservative forage utilization is especially important in the hot and arid Southwest.

The 2010 EA states that the allotment’s permittee is required to comply with the Forest’s conservative annual forage utilization guideline of a maximum of 30 to 40 percent. But that’s contradicted because it also says a “grazing intensity” of up to 50% is allowed “during the grazing period,” and the 2020 AOI shows pasture moves are based primarily on timing, not compliance with conservative forage use rates.

The total amount of government assistance that benefited the ranch was $852,600, and divided by the 235 additional head, it comes out to about $3,628 per head. (Only 209 total head of cattle, however, were authorized to graze in 2020.)

Greenlee County
Map of Upper Eagle Creek Watershed Association grazing allotments
UECWA grazing allotments

In 2004 several ranchers with permits for grazing allotments located along upper Eagle Creek in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests’ Clifton Ranger District filed legal paperwork to create the Upper Eagle Creek Watershed Association (UECWA).

The UECWA was formed as non-profit, 501(c)3 organization. Its directors were grazing permittees along upper Eagle Creek, and their stated purpose was to:

  • To work together to preserve ranching heritage and traditions;
  • To improve and preserve the watershed and other valuable resources;
  • To protect, enhance and increase habitat for wildlife and domestic animals;
  • To find sustainable methods of economic survival within the community.

They also helped their members receive multiple types of government financial assistance to benefit their ranches. Some of the money didn’t go directly to the ranchers, it went to local non-profits such as the UECWA, the Gila Watershed Partnership of Arizona, and the Coronado Resource Conservation & Development Area, Inc. These organizations helped to apply for grants, manage them, and minimize the taxable income amounts received by the ranchers.

The tables arrayed below show the amounts of government assistance that benefited each UECWA ranch during the last couple of decades.

4 Bar Ranch4 Drag Ranch6K6 RanchAnchor RanchDouble Circle RanchTule Springs Ranch
Four Bar Ranch (Four Bar Ranch LLC) - Mesa Allotment
2002OSR #2*$25,552
2005LCCGP #05-38$50,000Fencing
2007LCCGP #07-27$100,000Livestock Water and Fencing
2009LCCGP #09-37$50,000Upper Eagle Creek Restoration
$277,534TOTAL 2002-2014
* Open Space Reserve (OSR) grants became LCCGP grants in 2005.
4 Drag/7 Cross A Ranches (Darcy & Gary Ely) - East Eagle/Mud Springs Allotments
2002WQIG #04-022$45,750Maylay Pasture Livestock Water
2005LCCGP #05-33$125,000Fencing, Grassland Restoration, Livestock Water
2006WQIG #8-007*$360,930Upper Eagle Creek Watershed Restoration Phase 2
2007 - 2016EQIP$24,873
2007LCCGP #07-25$125,000Erosion Control, Livestock Water, and Fencing
2009LCCGP #09-36$100,000Watershed Improvement for SE Arizona Ranch Sustainability
2009 - 2019LFP$260,548
2011LCCGP #11-15$125,000Watershed Project for SE Arizona Ranch Sustainability
2011AWPF #11-177$136,714Eagle Creek Riparian Protection Project
$1,303,815TOTAL 2002-2019
* WQIG #8-007 was shared with three neighboring ranches.
6K6 Ranch (Powder River Ranch LLC) - AD Bar/Hogtrail Allotments
2005LCCGP #05-21$125,000Livestock Water and Fencing
2006WQIG #8-007*$360,930 Upper Eagle Creek Watershed Restoration Phase 2
2006 - 2011EQIP$43,538
2007LCCGP #07-11$100,000Livestock Water and Fencing
2009LCCGP #09-20$75,000AD Bar/Hogtrail Allotments Restoration Phase 2
$710,355TOTAL 2005-2011
* WQIG #8-007 was shared with three neighboring ranches.
The Powder River Ranch LLC sold the 6K6 Ranch in 2015 and the grazing permit was transferred to the new owners.
Anchor Ranch (Anchor Ranch LLC) - Baseline/Horsesprings Grazing Allotments
1996AWPF #96-0012$80,626Eagle Creek Watershed and Riparian Stabilization
2005LCCGP #05-48$113,803Grassland Restoration and Livestock Water
2007LCCGP #07-44$125,000Livestock Water
2007 - 2010EQIP$30,804
2009LCCGP #09-50$22,693Upper Eagle Creek Restoration, Baseline/Horsesprings Allotment
$450,257TOTAL 1996-2020
Double Circle Ranch (Wilma A. Jenkins) - Double Circle Allotment
2004WQIG #06-012$22,300Point of Pines Crossing Rehab
2005LCCGP #05-30$125,000Livestock Water and Fencing
2006WQIG #8-007*$360,930 Upper Eagle Creek Watershed Restoration Phase 2
2006AWPF #06-135$84,448Double Circle Riparian Fencing
2007 - 2010EQIP$84,113
2007LCCGP #07-48$125,000Livestock Water
2007WQIG #9-003$95,100Eagle Creek Watershed Restoration, Double Circle Ranch Phase II
2008WQIG #10-003$92,294Eagle Creek Watershed Restoration, Double Circle Ranch Phase III
2009 - 2011LFP$20,018
2009LCCGP #09-54$100,000Upper Eagle Creek Restoration, Double Circle Allotment
2009AWPF #09-163$35,356Double Circle Ranch Erosion Control
2011AWPF #11-176$36,866Double Circle Ranch Erosion Control, Phase 2
2011LCCGP #11-34$100,000Upper Eagle Creek Restoration, Double Circle Allotment, Phase 4
$1,281,425TOTAL 2004-2011
* WQIG #8-007 was shared with three neighboring ranches.
Wilma Jenkins sold the Double Circle Ranch in 2012 and the grazing permit was transferred to the new owners.
Tule Springs Ranch (Winkle Brothers LLC) - Tule Grazing Allotment
2005LCCGP #05-95$100,000Livestock Water
2006WQIG #8-007*$360,930 Upper Eagle Creek Watershed Restoration Phase 2
2007LCCGP #07-90$100,000Livestock Water and Fencing
2009LCCGP #09-116$100,000Upper Eagle Creek Watershed Restoration, Tule Allotment
2011LCCGP #11-81$122,572Tule Springs Ranch & Allotment Resource Management
$884,869TOTAL 2005-2020
* WQIG #8-007 was shared with three neighboring ranches.
Vandalized Mexican Wolf Reintroduction Area sign, Honeymoon Campground, Clifton Ranger District, August 2020.
Vandalized Mexican Wolf Reintroduction Area sign, Honeymoon Campground, Clifton Ranger District, August 2020. (Jeff Burgess)

Eagle Creek is 58.5-mile-long stream fed by tributaries that start in the southern foothills of the White Mountains. It flows south to join the Gila River. Its’ upper reaches are perennial, with intermittent perennial stretches downstream. Its riparian habitat is home to several endangered species, and in 1998 a federal legal settlement between the Forest Service and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and WildEarth Guardians required the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest to exclude cattle from its riparian areas in order to protect endangered species habitat. Upper Eagle Creek was among the streams where cattle were excluded, and a subsequent biological opinion issued by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) in 2002 confirmed that cattle must to be kept out of the creek in order to comply with the ESA. Also in 1998, the first endangered Mexican wolves were released in the Forest, and upper Eagle Creek was included in the wolf reintroduction area.

A closer look at the projects funded with the government assistance that benefited the UECWA ranches shows a lot of new fences were erected to prevent cattle trespassing from the adjacent San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation. Much of the rest of the money was used to build new livestock waters on the uplands so that cattle numbers could be increased. Each of the UECWA allotments has upland pastures, away from Eagle Creek. In fact the AD Bar-Hogtrail and Mesa allotments are located entirely in the uplands.

The table below is an attempt to estimate the cattle number increases authorized by the Forest Service that were facilitated by the government financial assistance.

Authorized Cattle Numbers On UECWA Grazing Allotments
4 BarMesa36155119$277,534
4 Drag*East Eagle-Mud Springs40343633$942,885
6K6*AD Bar-Hogtrail206949$349,425
Double Circle*Double Circle28137796$920,495
Tule Springs*Tule14117103$523,939
WQIG #8-007 shared by the four ranches marked above with asterisks.$360,930

The authorized cattle numbers for 2001 were taken from the USFWS February 26, 2002, biological opinion.

As shown in the tables above, the total amount of LCCGP grants received by the UECWA ranches was $2,109,068, which was more than half of all of the government assistance that benefited them. The total amount of assistance was $3,825,465, and divided by the estimated 520 head increase in authorized cattle, it comes out to about $7,357 per cow.

And this money wasn’t all of the financial assistance that benefited the UECWA ranches. They reportedly received $200,000 in “restoration” grants from the Forest Service, at least another $40,000 from the Arizona Game & Fish Department’s Heritage Fund, and likely some of the department’s Habitat Partnership Committee grants. There was also $7,500 from the Sonoran Institute, and some assistance from the USFWS Partners for Fish & Wildlife program. And there was probably more. You might think these were good investments, but they were subsidies nonetheless. And it’s difficult to believe that an additional 520 head of cattle on the uplands improved local watershed conditions.

Moreover, in 2018 the Center for Biological Diversity conducted an on-the-ground assessment of upper Eagle Creek and found that cattle had access to the riparian areas, and were damaging them, on three of the six ranches that received LCCGP grants. Subsequently  on January 13, 2020, the Center filed a lawsuit against the Forest and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife service for violating the Endangered Species Act.

East Eagle Creek, August 2020
East Eagle Creek, excluded from livestock grazing, looking west downstream, August 2020. (Jeff Burgess)
Pinal County

The A-Diamond Ranch is located in the Sonoran Desert on the south bank of the middle Gila River, west of State Route 177 in Pinal County. It includes the BLM’s A-Diamond Grazing Allotment, the adjacent Arizona state land grazing lease #05-003391, and the ranch’s base property along the river. According to the BLM, it encompasses about 20,779 acres, which includes the 6,566-acre BLM allotment. The amount of government assistance that benefited the ranch during the last 15 years is shown in the table below.

A Diamond Ranch (G&H Land & Cattle Co.) - A Diamond Allotment, State Lease #05-003391
2007LCCGP #07-29$61,320Fencing
2009LCCGP #09-39$43,534Enhanced Land Management Plan
2012HPC #11-508$9,773Solar Livestock Water Pump
$544,857TOTAL 2006-2020
G&H Land & Cattle Co. sold the A Diamond Ranch, with the associated state grazing lease, to ASARCO LLC in August 2019. G&H now subleases the ranch from ASARCO LLC

The stretch of the Gila River that flows past the A Diamond Ranch is supplied by water released upstream from Coolidge Dam, which impounds the San Carlos Reservoir. The river flows west through a rugged canyon, with several BLM grazing allotments along both banks, until it reaches the open desert and its entire flow is diverted into an agricultural canal at the Ashurst-Hayden Diversion Dam north of Florence. The BLM fenced cattle out of this part of the Gila River in the mid 1990s to protect federally endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher riparian habitat. Then on October 23, 2003, the BLM succeeded in getting the USFWS to concur in a biological opinion that grazing could be permitted in the river’s riparian habitat during the winter, from November through March, because cattle would still be excluded during the riparian growing season and flycatcher nesting season.

However, in the ADA’s Stories of Success report, it said that cattle from the A Diamond ranch were allowed to graze “along the Gila River fourteen days a year during the winter months to eat the salt-cedar saplings.” Salt-cedar trees, also called tamarisk, are an exotic species that invades and damages Sonoran Desert riparian ecosystems. But in their 2003 biological opinion, the USFWS had pointed out that tamarisk shrubs are “generally unpalatable to cows.” They also acknowledged research that showed cattle grazing actually contributes to the takeover of riparian areas by tamarisk, because cattle prefer to eat the shoots of native cottonwood, sycamore, and willow trees, thereby giving the fast-growing tamarisk a decisive advantage.

There was more troubling information about the A Diamond Ranch in a magazine article titled “Making Meat” in the 2016 January/February edition of Edible Baja Arizona, a local periodical that ceased publication in 2018. The ranch’s managing owner, Gregg Vinson, reportedly said:

“During the summer, cattle wander the lowlands near the river. When it rains, the cows wander high in the hills to find grass. When it gets hot again, they come to the river to munch on mesquite pods and slurp cool water.”

This was very different from the BLM’s description of the A Diamond allotment’s management situation that was included in the 2003 biological opinion, which said:

“This allotment currently has fencing in place to restrict livestock grazing in the riparian areas. The current livestock operator does not want livestock to use the river’s riparian corridor. There are no plans to allow livestock access to the river during any season.”

After the publication of the magazine article, the USFWS issued another biological opinion in 2018 regarding livestock grazing on these allotments. It expanded the allowable “winter” riparian grazing period to include the month of October. But it still didn’t permit grazing along the Gila River during the summer.

The issue of cattle grazing along the middle Gila River made the news in November 2018 when the Arizona Republic newspaper published an opinion titled, “Why I stopped eating beef after hiking the Arizona Trail,” written by Dr. Nicolaus Hawbaker. He described hiking the Arizona Trail along the middle Gila River during the summer and finding it full of cow turds. He complained that, “Cattle have more right to public lands than humans.”

Map of BLM Battle Axe & A Diamond grazing allotments
Map of BLM A Diamond & Battle Axe grazing allotments (BLM)

Dr. Hawbaker’s letter made me curious, so I began gathering information about the BLM’s management of livestock along this part of the river. In July 2019 I received a written response from the BLM’s Tucson Field Office wherein they addressed my questions. They claimed that cattle weren’t accessing the river from BLM land, but were probably accessing it from the adjacent state or private land, where the BLM had “no control or jurisdiction.” The letter said the cattle Mr. Hawbaker had encountered were probably from the Battle Axe Ranch, on the north side of the river, opposite the A Diamond Ranch, on leased state land near the mouth of Walnut Canyon. But it also said that the A Diamond Ranch leased state land and owned private land along the south bank of the river, from which cattle could access the river in the summer.

In fact, the ranch’s 2007 coordinated resource management plan (CRMP) said its River Pasture was being used for “research on the effects of intensive management on native grasses.” The CRMP also said the entire ranch was using a “high intensive” grazing management system. This term is often used to describe HRM grazing management plans. Unfortunately, the ranch’s management plan was implemented without using the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) public planning process, despite the fact it affected the BLM’s federal grazing allotment, and it’s implementation was partially funded with federal EQIP funds. If the NEPA process had been used, public input could have helped to ensure that a conventional science-based management plan was implemented.

For example, in the magazine article, Vinson had also said, “The way to manage the ranch is simply to try and figure out the way animals roamed and ate a thousand years ago.” But there were no cattle, or similar large herbivores, in Arizona back then – nor thousands of years before. He also claimed that cattle grazing could “improve” the land and said, “Animals grind up the pastures with their hooves. They chew species down to where they’re supposed to be, and then they grind that carbonaceous material into the ground.”

Note: Arizona Corporation Commission records indicate that, as of 2019, Mr. Vinson is no longer an owner of G&H Land & Cattle Co.

These are HRM catch phrases too. There’s plenty of research that shows pulverizing the ground with cattle hooves doesn’t improve the soil, but damages it and increases erosion. Moreover, cattle grazing doesn’t improve the Sonoran Desert, but degrades it. For instance, cattle seek shade under desert trees like mesquite and palo verde, which also serve as nurse plants for juvenile saguaro cacti. Cattle denude the ground beneath desert trees and destroy the young saguaros. Furthermore, cattle compete with desert wildlife for forage. In the cooler winter months they consume much of the limited amounts of grasses and forbs, and in the summer months they are forced to rely on browsing desert shrubs. Research (Rosiere 1975) has shown that cattle can’t get more than 50% of their forage from desert grasses, while in the summer up to 53% of their diet is jojoba, and up to 40% is mesquite (Smith 1993). This makes them direct competitors with the desert wildlife, particularly mule deer, that rely on  browsing woody plants, especially during the hot summers. And these are just some of the examples.

The G&H Land & Cattle Company, which owns the A Diamond Ranch, also owns the Jojoba Beef Company, which sells the meat from the ranch’s cattle and advertises it as being free-range beef that’s healthier to eat. (The word jojoba is in the company’s name because cattle are forced to eat brush when they graze in the desert, and they prefer the jojoba bushes.) But although their meat may be healthier to eat, the A Diamond Ranch is an example of the fact that raising healthier beef doesn’t necessarily mean the cattle were raised in a way that was better for the environment.

Middle Gila River, looking west from the Arizona Trail, Passage ATZ-16
Middle Gila River, looking west from the Arizona Trail, Passage ATZ-16, spring 2019. The headquarters of the A Diamond Ranch is visible downstream.
(Jeff Burgess)

The LCCGP grants, and the other government assistance for ranchers they helped to leverage, facilitated increased cattle numbers on public land in Arizona during a period of almost uninterrupted drought. That wasn’t what the state’s voters believed their money would be used for when they approved Proposition 303 in 1998.

Arizona drought history 2000-2020

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