An hour south of Tucson, the rolling, curving foothills of the Santa Rita Mountains give way to swales of grass, newly green from prolific monsoons. A great valley spreads out in the distance, flanked by the sway-backed Mustang Mountains in the southeast. A highway sign proclaims this a “scenic byway.”
The Empire Valley is iconic ranch country immortalized in several John Wayne movies. These days the leading man is rancher Ian Tomlinson, burly, blue-eyed and tall in the saddle. On any given day he’ll be riding herd on his cattle, accompanied by dogs and hired hands.
“We’re always happy to be on horseback,” says the father of two young daughters. But that’s not all there is to ranching.
A big part of his day is spent as an ecosystems manager of almost a quarter of a million acres of grassland – home to threatened and endangered wildlife and the watershed that cleanses and filters water for the city of Tucson.
Collaboration: The Right Approach
At a time when some in the ranching community view government agencies and conservation groups as enemies of ranching, Ian embraces collaboration and conservation. He works closely with a group of scientists, agency reps and conservationists – including The Nature Conservancy – that evaluates management of the 45,000-acre Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, which he leases from the Bureau of Land Management. He is also taking steps to keep his family ranch from ever being subdivided or developed.
“We’re all adapting to a changing marketplace and changing programs. It think it’s smart to collaborate and to do things the right way,” he says.
None of this – being a rancher or a conservationist – was in Ian’s life plan. He spent part of his childhood on his grandparents’ Vera Earl ranch in the valley, but at age 6 his family moved to Seattle. He spent years there going to school and college, and ultimately getting his law degree.
“I never thought I’d be a rancher,” he says. But in 2001, after Ian’s grandmother passed away, he and his wife, Kristen, moved back to Arizona and the Vera Earl. Ian became a part-time rancher and hung up his shingle as a lawyer.
In 2007, they became full-time ranchers. “We felt we needed to expand. So, we acquired the lease on the Empire Ranch, then entered into a partnership with the Sands Ranch.”
He also manages another ranch in the San Pedro River watershed, the Four Spear Ranch, as well as ranch operations in Texas and Wyoming.
Ranching Is About Managing Risk
A major risk is the weather and drought. “You can make the best management plan and if Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate, well, you have to have contingencies in place.”
Recently, monsoon rains have given the grassland a boost. And, warmer falls have meant longer growing seasons, which means more grass for his cattle.
Another uncertainty for ranchers is whether they can keep their land in ranching. What if the other ranch owners want to sell out—given financial pressures to develop the land?
The Vera Earl is owned by Ian, and his mother and several siblings who live in Oregon and Colorado. “When you have an extended family with an ownership interest in the ranch, there is always a risk that they will want to divide it up to sell their portion or sell it outright.”
Conservation Agreement To Keep Ranch Intact
Ian worked with the Conservancy on a conservation easement, which pays the Tomlinson family for giving up the ranch’s development rights. Funding came from the Army’s Compatible Use Buffer program, which is interested in maintaining airspace for drone testing.
The first conservation easement, which covers 800 acres, is one of several he plans to do with the Conservancy, ultimately protecting 80 percent of the ranch’s deeded acreage, about 6,500 acres.
“Conservation easements are a great tool to manage inter-generational ranching,” he says. “And they’re flexible to meet the needs of both the buyer and seller. A lot of people think conservation easements are something you’re forced to do. That’s not the case.”
The easement also accomplishes a public goal: that of limiting development in a valley whose intact grasslands filter groundwater for the city of Tucson. The Vera Earl is a long rectangular property that connects Forest Service land to the BLM property. The property crosses Highway 83 just north of Sonoita, where homes, businesses, ranchettes and wineries dot the horizon.
“This and future easements on the ranch will significantly curtail development on the south end of this exceptional grassland, and protect an important wildlife corridor,” says Peter Warren, who negotiated the deal for the Conservancy.
A big chunk of that grassland is the BLM-managed Las Cienegas NCA, which is home to prairie dogs, pronghorn antelope and many bird and fish species. The buildings of the historic Empire Ranch and a foundation dedicated to reviving the ranch’s history are here.
When Ian saddles up and rides, he brings to life the ranching history of the land. A potential downside is that his cattle management is always under the public microscope. A tricky dance for many ranchers is showing they are grazing cattle in a way that is not harmful to the land.
To that end, Ian works with a collaborative group convened by the BLM that tracks grassland health. The group’s goal is to maintain 70 percent ground cover dominated by native grasses.
When there is drought, Ian has to match the numbers of his cattle with the grass growth. He also works with the group to evaluate erosion, wildlife and other land issues.
“He’s flexible and engaged, and he sees value in the process,” says Karen Simms, the BLM’s Las Cienegas project manager. “He participates in collecting data about grass and is very open about working with the group to adjust cattle numbers and their movements.”
Ian and the group also strive to improve wildlife habitat. For the water-dependent species, Ian erected fences and separate watering systems for his cattle. Those efforts help protect native fish including Gila topminnow and desert pupfish, Chiricahua leopard frogs, Mexican gartersnakes and a rare plant, the Huachuca water umbel.
“Our job is to be a good tenant,” says Ian, of his arrangement with the BLM. “And it’s very helpful to have this active working relationship involved in maintaining a healthy landscape.”
Young People Learn About Grassland Management
Among those learning what’s working are high-school students in the Youth Engaged Stewardship program, now in its third year. The students are designing conservation projects at Las Cienegas. Ian has helped the group by building exclosures – areas fenced off to determine the impacts of grazing on the restoration areas.
“I come over and speak to the group every year about what I do here. They’re all very engaged and eager to learn about what is occurring here on the land.”
About his role as a conservationist: “I have a great working relationship with The Nature Conservancy, the BLM, the Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies.”
“I believe in collaboration. I think that makes me a better cowman, rancher and land steward.”