-Clara Miller, 14
“We’re the next generation out here and it’s up to us to protect the land.” Clara Miller may only be 14 years old, but she clearly understands the importance of conservation.
So does her mentor, Sarah King, 26. For both girls, ranch life in southern Arizona’s Altar Valley is all about caring for the land.
Clara and Sarah have been inspired to care for the land by their family members. Clara’s parents, Mary and Charley have been running Elkhorn Ranch, a guest ranch near the Baboquivari Mountains, for nearly 70 years.
Sarah, who married Joe King, lives on the Anvil Ranch owned by Joe’s parents, Pat and John King. The King family has been cattle ranching since the late 1800s.
Both families are deeply rooted in the Altar Valley Conservation Alliance. The valley, south of Tucson, encompasses 600,000 acres of working landscape. The alliance is a group of ranch families working with agencies and the Conservancy, to develop scientific solutions for conservation and restoration. A big focus now is returning fire to the grasslands and addressing erosion problems.
For both Sarah and Clara, being connected to the outdoors started at a young age.
Sarah started horse riding lessons in New Jersey when she was 7 years old. A couple years later, during a family vacation to the Elkhorn Ranch, she was exposed to western culture, wildlife and mountains.
“Every day was an adventure,” remembers Sarah. “We rode horses, played, explored. I really started to appreciate the outdoors and wide open spaces.” The vacation sparked Sarah’s lifetime friendship with the Miller family.
Sarah went on to Davidson College in North Carolina, where she studied history. During summer breaks she worked at a ranch in Montana where she did all kinds of things from nursing animals to leading trail rides. “I learned a lot about the ranching business.”
Sarah traded her history degree for a pair of cowboy boots and a lasso. The fall after graduation she accepted a job as a wrangler at the Elkhorn Ranch. Shortly after moving to Arizona, she met her future husband, Joe.
“The ranching lifestyle is so unique,” says Sarah. Ranching is not a Monday-through- Friday, nine-to–five job. On the ranch, you’re on the job 24/7 365 days a year. If a calf is weaning, you have to feed it. If an animal is sick, you need to care for it around the clock. “It’s hard work, but so fulfilling.”
Meantime, at the Elkhorn Ranch, Clara started riding horses when she was in kindergarten. She calls her life on the ranch fun and exciting. “There are always a lot of people around and cool things to do like ride horses, hike, and play games.” There’s a little work to do, too. Clara helps in the barn and feeds the animals.
Through the years, Clara has watched her parents work around the clock, caring for people and the land. That’s how she learned about grazing practices. “You have to move the horses from pasture to pasture so the grass can recover and grow,” she says.
Both Clara and Sarah are interested in conserving the ranchland they love. Sarah is working on ranchland conservation as the Altar Valley Conservation Alliance Community Outreach and Education Coordinator. She’s raising awareness about the work the alliance is doing and how it positively impacts the valley and surrounding communities. She is planning to develop a conservation education program and will be recruiting Clara to be a part of it.
The future of the Altar Valley depends on young people like Sarah and Clara. “If we don’t take care of the land, the land won’t take care of us,” says Sarah. Clara adds, “The more we’re on the ranch, the more we know. Knowing the land is essential. If we want to enjoy it, we have to pay attention to it.”
Their knowledge, conservation ethic and love of the land will play a key role in protecting and restoring Altar Valley for generations to come.