A River, the Army and a Ranching Heritage

“We had come to a decision as a family that we wanted to preserve the ranch in perpetuity.”

-Ben Brophy

In southern Arizona near the Mexican border, the 28,000-acre Babacomari Ranch cuts a three-mile swath for more than 15 miles through a vast rolling grassland. Through it all flows the cottonwood-studded Babocomari River, a virtual super-highway for migrating birds, and a key tributary to one of Arizona’s most important sources of water, the San Pedro.

Thanks to an unusual assemblage of organizations, the grasslands of the Babacomari and several neighboring ranches will remain intact, and the U.S. Army, one of southern Arizona’s largest employers, will preserve its military airspace for aircraft testing.

And the river running through it all will remain free and clear.

“We had come to a decision as a family that we wanted to preserve the ranch in perpetuity,” said Ben Brophy, whose family has owned the ranch since 1935.

Conservation Easements Benefit Ranchers and the Army

The Brophys are working with The Nature Conservancy and other public, private and non-profit organizations to secure conservation easements covering key parts of the ranch.

Currently, 4,400 acres of the ranch are covered by easement, and future easements are in the works. Conservation easements restrict subdivision, building development and other land uses that would harm the property’s agricultural and wildlife values.

In exchange for giving up these development rights, the landowners receive cash payments that reflect the land’s development value, which is a significant part of the land’s overall value.

Another neighboring family, the Jelks, have placed 1,600 acres of their Diamond C Ranch under conservation easement. The easement means little change in how the land will be used.

“We can still have barbecues out there and have bonfires, ride horses and go hunting. Essentially our land use has not changed,” said Jim Jelks, who manages the cattle ranch from Davis, California.

Fort Huachuca Funds Conservation

In recent years, the Army’s Fort Huachuca has used the airspace as a training zone for unmanned aerial vehicles used in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Interested in preserving land around its training operations, Fort Huachuca has provided funding for conservation easements to create buffer zones around its installation and to provide for open space.

With that goal in mind, the Fort began working with the Conservancy in 2007 to broker conservation easements in the area. By working with the Fort, the Conservancy could achieve its conservation goals while supporting a major southern Arizona employer, one that accounts for more than 22,200 direct and indirect jobs and whose total economic output is around $2.23 billion.

Fort Huachuca began working with the Conservancy in 2007 to broker some of the easements in the area. Funds from the Army Compatible Use Buffer program as well as the Bureau of Land Management, the Arizona Military Installation Fund, and private donors have paid for conservation easements covering about 31,000 acres in the Babacomari and nearby grasslands. Another 30,000 acres of easements are in the works.

“These groups all recognize the outstanding natural values of the river and the grasslands surrounding it, and have been willing to work together to make sure this ranchland is protected,” said the Conservancy’s Peter Warren, who has brokered many of the easements.

“These grasslands are among the most productive from a ranching perspective and most diverse from a conservation perspective anywhere in the Southwest,” said Warren.

A Haven for Wildlife

The Babocomari River with its extensive cottonwood-willow stands and wetlands are home to several species imperiled elsewhere in the Southwest: the Gila chub (a fish), Chiricahua leopard frog, and plants including the Huachuca water umbel and Canelo ladies tresses orchid, known to exist in just four locations.

The river, which runs perennially for about 7 miles, is a key tributary to the San Pedro River, a vital water source for the region. Millions of birds breed and migrate throughout this river corridor.

“This rich habitat is not here by accident. It reflects the care the Brophys have taken with their land and their continuing efforts to steward their ranch,” said Warren.

Keeping the Land in the Family

The Brophys, with more than 60 family members who have a say in how the land is managed, have three goals for their land, according to family member Frank McChesney, who lives and works on the ranch. These goals include keeping the land in the family, protecting it from subdivision and making money.

Conservation easements are helping the family achieve all three.

“What we have here is so valuable and beautiful; our family gathers here every two years,” says McChesney. “Our next goal is to introduce the fourth generation of our family to this ranch.”

The family eventually hopes to have 16,000 of the ranch’s 28,000 acres under conservation easements. The agreements have provided funding for the Brophys to make improvements on the land, such as mesquite removal, grassland restoration, brush control and water retention. The easements also allow for continued scientific research.

The Jelks family also sees benefits from the conservation easements.

Four years ago, Jim Jelks and his family began working with the Arizona Land and Water Trust to complete two conservation easements. The ACUB program provided funding and the Conservancy provided administrative services.

In southern Arizona, conservation easements and other tools are helping bridge conservation, military and ranching interests, and in the process are protecting some of the best native grassland west of the Mississippi.