AoR 65: Vanessa Prileson, Conservation Ranching in Pima County, Arizona

Pima County owns and leases large tracts of land for working landscapes and biological conservation. Vanessa Prileson manages the range program which ensures this arrangement is successful and has good advice for other organizations selecting lessees/operators who need to be able to manage toward conservation goals and as well as economic and production goals.


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>> Welcome to the Art of Range, a podcast focused on rangelands and the people who manage them. I'm your host, Tip Hudson, Range and Livestock Specialist with Washington State University Extension. The goal of this podcast is education and conservation through conversation. Find us online at My guest today on the Art of Range is Vanessa Prileson and Vanessa, you can correct me on the pronunciation here in a minute. She is the Rangeland Program Manager for the Pima County Natural Resources Department in Arizona. We got connected through a conversation grazing symposium at a so called virtual conference with the Society For Range Management this year, where she caught me in the virtual hallway afterward and said, "When you mentioned that public land agencies would be looking more and more towards selecting good land managers rather than the highest bidder, I realized we're already in the process of doing that here in Pima County, Arizona." And that intrigued me for a several reasons. One is that Pima County is a unique place ecologically and socially. This is the Sonoran Desert and it's not a location where I would expect county-owned ranch land or a proactive grazing program necessarily. Forgive me if that's insulting but if so, it just reveals my own bias. And I thought this would be something worth talking about for the benefit of others. Vanessa, welcome to the show.

>> Hey, thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

>> And how do you pronounce your last name?

>> It is Prileson so you got it right.

>> Prileson, OK. Well, I was in Tucson for the first time in my life about 15 years ago at a meeting of the Rangelands Partnership which is a group of extension range specialists and agricultural librarians that's been coordinated mostly out of the University of Arizona for 20 years. I think I've only been back once but on that first trip, I arrived a day early and took a rental car out because I had never been in the desert southwest anywhere before. And drove out in the Saguaro National Park, I think it's a national park. This was in March, I think, and it had just rained and everything was in full bloom and it was just spectacularly beautiful. And I fell in love with that desert. We toured, at that meeting we toured south from there and visited a couple of ranches down around Nogales. I think both ranchers had permits on the Coronado National Forest. And then I couldn't believe how much grass there was down there and it looked a lot different than the Saguaro Desert. And this was one of the few places I thought I might like to live other than Ellensburg, Washington. So you're the Range Program Manager for the Pima County Natural Resources Department and Pima County, I think, encompasses all of that area. I know Nogales is a different county but it's close. And in my neck of the woods, county governments don't have range program managers so I've got so many questions I'm not sure where to start. But let's start with this. I've interviewed Richard Knight about the Radical Center and it seems that you have found yourself somewhere in that neighborhood. What was your pathway to managing a desert southwest rangeland grazing program? And then, we'll get around to talking about the program itself.

>> OK, wow. I will try my best to make this a truncated version of that story. But, yeah, you hit it right. I am in that Radical Center and I've heard Rick Knight give presentations at the Quivira Coalition Conference. And really, the Quivira Coalition is probably the organization that really got me motivated about sustainable ranch management and rangeland management in the first place back when I was in high school, I believe. And I've been interested in rangelands and more specifically I think rangeland-raised or grass-finished beef amidst a conventional ranch setting. And I did grow up in Tucson for the most part so I'm very familiar with the Sonoran Desert and how it can be so wonderful one moment and then the next season a heartbreak with just the way it looks or if it doesn't rain. But definitely, those spring showers you mentioned, when those annual flowers come up every spring, it's just amazing what it can do. And it's also amazing how it has such a vast kind of high-desert grassland and semi-arid grasslands spread throughout as soon as you go further south and up in elevation and southeast -- south and southeast towards Mexico and New Mexico. And you see this amazing transition between the Sonoran Desert or from the Sonoran Desert into the Chihuahuan Desert. So there's a lot going on ecologically and throwing in the sky island, if you will, mountain ranges that are very iconic here which are really only the far-flung end of many more of those sky island mountains that really stretch far down into Mexico. So growing up amongst style of that, I think I just got hooked to wide open spaces a lot of which were composed of working cattle ranches. And I think as a high school student I -- well, I grew up a horse-crazy kid and then got into working on ranches during the summertime throughout high school and just always kind of wanting that ranch of my own type vision began. That had always been in my mind growing up. So, I knew my profession had to be something like if it wasn't ranching, it had to be something related to that, but the ecology was really important to me too and continues to be. So, encouraged by my parents, I will say they encouraged me quite a bit to pursue, OK, you know, how can rangelands and their uses be made more sustainable. And I actually wound up at Oregon State University for my undergraduate degree. And I was in the Agricultural Resource Economics Department to start off with and they didn't really have exactly a major that taught you, you know, how to raise grass-fed beef sustainably which is what I was really looking for. I got around to that later. So, I really started off with kind of a Natural Resource Economics background and Water Law. And then I discovered that Rangeland Management was an actual profession and they had a department for that at Oregon State. So, I got a minor in Rangeland Management and that really, that's really the part I loved the most. But I'm glad I also was exposed to that Natural Resource and Water Law background at the same time.

>> Yeah, I suspect that was good preparation for some of the things that you'll be dealing with.

>> Yeah. And then after that it was kind of, after I graduated Oregon State and I loved my time in Corvallis and I really loved the Pacific Northwest, never thought I would come back to Arizona. I just was too excited about other things and I really like international travel and living in other countries or at least spending time in other countries where they also have rangelands and agriculture. But anyway, after I graduated from Oregon State, I was a little bit of a lost soul. And I jumped around to a couple of ranch apprenticeships, one being in the San Luis Valley in Colorado, on the San Juan Ranch with George Whitten and Julie Sullivan. And that working for them even just for eight months was a real eye-opener and kind of a key year for me. That was 2006, 2007. And they run an operation completely on raising grass-fed animals now. When I was there, I mean, I learned everything from calving, you know, from calving season, raising calves all the way through until weaning. And then they kept -- they selected -- I think when I was there, they wound up keeping all the steers and heifers from the previous calving year and sold them as live-finished animals. And at that point, they were still trying to figure out, you know, what's the best way to do this so we can actually continue to make a living here. And just now that it's been so many years and they've had more apprentices since then, you know, seeing them actually move, take that and move forward, they've come a long way since I was there. And it's really cool to see that. So, after that experience, I think I was in my early 20s and I just wanted to be around young people again and not in the middle of nowhere. And I wound up taking a job as a Rangeland Management Specialist with the Forest Service on the Tonto National Forest in Payson, Arizona. So that kind of brought me back to Arizona oddly and that's where my range profession, I think, really began from an agency perspective. And after six years of that and during that time, I actually acquired a master's degree in Range Science at New Mexico State University during the time that I worked for the Forest Service which was really, really, really lucky for me that I got to do that because it meant that I could keep that job after I was done with the degree. But that degree let me travel to Argentina and learn about rangeland management there with sheep and cattle and really just get to learn the culture there. And I really, really enjoyed it and found it difficult to come back. But eventually, I finished the degree and I did leave the Forest Service eventually to work on another ranch in Southeast Arizona that also did grass-fed beef raising and lamb and goat. And that was -- I think I wanted to get back to that environment and so I actually worked on that ranch for two-and-a-half years and had a really, overall, a great experience before -- back in 2016 is when I decided to pivot and do something else again, and that's when this Pima County range job came open. And that's how I wound up back in Tucson of all places. And it just seemed to be more fitting. And I just couldn't do all the things we're doing for Pima County and their ranches while I was working for the Forest Service. It was just really difficult to implement these programs we're implementing now for a federal agency that kind of already had the book written. So that's kind of how I wound up here in Tucson, back in Tucson.

>> How old was the Pima County Range Program when you started?

>> Ooh, I think, technically, it was 12 years old at that time but I think, yeah, it was about 12 years old but I was the, I was technically the third Range Program Manager they had but the first one that came from a Rangeland Management Specialist background with formal education in Range Management.

>> Well, what is the Pima County Range Program?

>> So, the Pima County Range Program is nestled within the Natural Resources Division of the Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation Department of Pima County, which is one of about probably 30 departments that the county has. So, the Parks and Rec Department, that's what we call it for short, they have several different divisions. And they not only manage the ranch and open space lands that were acquired, and I'll go over that in a second, but other divisions in this department also manage the urban parks that have pools and bike paths.

>> Right.

>> So we're thrown in with all of that as well, so it's a really interesting combination. But the Range Program in the Natural Resources Division manages the ranches, 15 of them, that were acquired through the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan implementation process. So basically, the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan is actually a world-renowned plan. I think world, I'm pretty sure it's internationally-renowned conservation plan which the purpose of that is to guide land and resource conservation while balancing community growth. And the plan was developed and started in the late 90s with the listing of the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl. And that was kind of the last straw for a lot of different entities and groups in Eastern Pima County which is mainly, Tucson to the main population of Eastern Pima County. And that list -- every time a species was listed as endangered, it prevented all sorts of economic development from happening. And so, realtors, developers, biologists and scientists from University of Arizona and ranchers and wildlife advocates, several of those groups, many, many people came together to figure out, OK, you know, how can we make this more efficient? How can we do economic development and not have to have this roadblock every time we want to build something but yet, we still want to maintain open space for wildlife habitat? So they came up with these five elements and I'm really generalizing right now because this took years to develop.

>> Let me hold you there for just a second. You know, every county says they want sustainable land use and conserving biodiversity and habitat. But I think I'm right that not that many counties own significant acreages of grazed ranchland.

>> That's correct.

>> You may know more about that than me, but is that the case?

>> That's the case in most cases.

>> OK.

>> I've noticed it's becoming more common for counties to either acquire land or conservation easements on land within the last several years, but it's definitely very uncommon to outright purchase large tracts of land and then try to manage it.

>> So was that approach thought up as part of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan or did some of that -- was there some history of doing that before the conservation plan?

>> I don't know that there was history of actually outright buying land or buying ranchland like that in the past, but I do know that some land was set aside in the past. So I believe, oh goodness, I think in the -- it was either the 1970s or maybe the 1950s, Tucson Mountain Park which is actually adjacent to Saguaro National Park west to the south, it's a very, very popular, large Saguaro Park basicallythat the county actually owns, but that was set aside decades ago. So that really is one of the only examples I can think of, of that.

>> OK. Now the five --


>> -- five principles.

>> Right, the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan is based on five elements. The first is critical habitat and biological corridors. The second is riparian areas. The third is mountain parks and recreation. The fourth is historical and cultural preservation and the fifth is ranch conservation. So, the fifth element kind of makes, it makes all the other elements happen for the most part. There's a few exceptions there but -- so, the county, so Pima County also had purchased smaller tracts of land that were -- there's a few other open space parks or natural resource parks that had been purchased since Tucson Mountain Park and basically pre-Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan days, including Colossal Cave Mountain Park on the east side of Tucson and Catalina Regional Park north of Tucson. And there's a few other smaller park examples and corridor parks that are kind of or they are tracts of land that were purchased to basically conserve riparian areas or areas where water flows most of the year.

>> Yeah, that's really interesting. Part of what I feel like is interesting is that most conservation groups, I think, had not bought into the idea that there was a choice between cows in condos and mostly pursued preservation or various kinds of nonuse as the dominant approach to accomplishing conservation. Do you know any of the history of how they arrived at ranching for land conservation because that's an innovative idea for sure?

>> Yes. So, back in the late 90s and early 2000s, about the time that the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan was being, was evolving really with all these groups, I don't think they came up with the term Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan until they really had all these elements put together. But during that time, a lot of ranches were going out of business or they were selling -- they were going out of business and then selling land to develop for development. And lots of people didn't like that. And I saw it happening as a high school student. I thought, "Well, why is this happening? You know, why can't ranchers stay on the land?" And so, that really was a huge catalyst in getting the ranch conservation element added basically. And so, essentially, the county started talking with ranchers in areas where risk of development or risk of land being sold and then getting developed into either condos or ranchettes was really happening. And so, they talked to ranchers in each of those zones and said, "Hey, you know, what if we pass a bond?" And I don't know if this is exactly what they said but, you know, they said, "Hey, how about we buy your -- would you guys be willing to sell it to us, you know, and then lease it back from us and still be able to run your livestock operation?" We need to get these tracts of land set aside in order to mitigate for other economic development happening elsewhere because they wanted, the county wanted to control not whether economic development was going to happen but just where it was going to be developed so we didn't run out of natural resource areas for all those elements that I listed.

>> Wow. So the purpose of the Pima County Range Program is to put some structure in place to ensure that those other four elements are accomplished through the grazing on county on land?

>> Exactly. Yeah. So really, I feel like the Range Program from my perspective when I first came on in 2016, my immediate thought was, oh, this is like a mini-ranger district on a forest except it's not national forest.

>> Yeah.

>> It's a conglomeration of land ownerships. So when the county purchased those ranches, and this was in stages, it wasn't all at once, a lot of the time, they were purchasing base private property or base private property lands that was kind of scattered throughout larger grazing leases owned by Arizona State Land Department or even the Bureau of Land Management. So, we still have a checkerboard kind of ownership on each ranch but several of those ranches are connected.

>> Right. So management occurs in blocks even though ownership may still be checkerboarded?

>> Right.

>> I'm curious, how has that been received by other ranchers in the area?

>> Right. Well --

>> Because this seems to be a pretty controversial issue with ranchers, you know?

>> Yeah.

>> Some feeling like doing anything like that is just a creative way of giving it up and selling out.

>> Right. Well, I think, I don't know. I mean, I'm sure all of the ranchers -- I wasn't here when the sale has been going on. This was back in 2004 and 2007. But I'm pretty sure all of them were reluctant to some degree. But I think some really needed the money, you know, that would help pay off huge debts and would really help or they could put it back into the operation to make it more to viable long term, maybe make it more appealing for new generations to come back to the ranch or to come on to the ranch. But the method for purchasing these ranches, I mean, the county had to make -- had to get the money somehow. Basically, voters of Pima County approved a conservation bond in 2004 for many millions of dollars to purchase the first block of ranches. And then they passed another one. They approved another one in 2007. So that's where all the money came from to actually buy these ranches. And so now that we have all these ranches, in the first 12 years of the Range Program, I think the majority of the time spent on these branches was getting to know each ranch or building relationships, learning where the infrastructure was, and setting up some sort of monitoring program. And I think all of that happened but there were definitely, there was definitely -- some of those elements maybe weren't done as well because there could have been better communications with a lot of the ranchers, I think, depending on individual county staff. Some ranchers may have felt that some of the staff were too aggressive and wanted to come out to the ranch whenever without notifying them. And so when I came on board, there was a lot of mistrust. And so I thought, well that's when I was really glad that I've had that Forest Service background because I thought, "Well, the first thing you do is go out and ride with each rancher or go out on this visit and kind of see what's going on." You know, start to build a relationship so that you understand what they're dealing with. And then start, and then I started to just make things a little more structured and uniform and have an annual meeting and have coordination on when monitoring was going to happen and what we're doing with the data and just transparency like that. And so, it was relatively, I don't want to say easy, but it wasn't that hard to kind of develop a structured program. But I wouldn't have been able to do that without my Forest Service background and background of working on those other ranches that I mentioned in the past.

>> Yeah. Yeah. So they needed to know who you were. You needed to know who they were. And they needed to know that you knew who they were.

>> Yes. Yeah. And that's not to say that I don't have to regulate, you know. There are definitely times where I have to say, "Well, you know, this is in -- you know, we can't do this project this way. We have to go through the right channels." And they don't like hearing that but in the end, they do respect it. And, you know, it's just, that's the hard part of my job.

>> So there are some grazing standards or guidelines that those properties are held accountable to. What do those look like and how is it different from, you know, whatever the status quo is on adjacent commercial ranches?

>> Right. Yeah. Well, so the Pima County Rangeland's standards and guidelines were developed in 2010. We probably should update them. But really, that is something that was done very well by previous range staff and their supervisor who's now since retired. But they worked with the University of Arizona, local range consultants that were connected to the University of Arizona and other agencies in the area like the Forest Service. And they got input from all those experts in the Arizona Game and Fish Department to put together standards and guidelines such as utilization limits and plant community and trend condition and looking at what's appropriate to have on an ecological site. What are some clear lines in the sand that say, hey, you know, this ecological site can't withstand more than this amount of bare ground, for example. So really, those guidelines are developed from pretty widely accepted standards and guidelines between Forest Service, Bureau Land Management, University of Arizona and local range professionals and the Arizona State Land Department. So, you know, so they look pretty -- they fit right in and they're generally widely accepted. So, it's not like we pulled it out of thin air and said, "Oh, you can only do this or only do that." It's all scientifically based. And it wasn't a wheel that had to be reinvented. They had to a little bit because it was at a county level and a whole different ballgame. But the actual ecology and monitoring methods applied on the ground were and continue to be consistent with what's professionally accepted in the range profession.

>> How many, I guess, individual properties and how much total property acreage is involved in this program?

>> So, there are 15 ranches and I really should say 14 ranches and one farm property. And the acreage composes approximately 200,000 acres. Most of which I would -- so it's about 150,000 acres of that is state trust land that we have leased, that we hold a grazing lease on, on that respective ranch and/or Bureau of Land Management grazing leases that we also hold. So, we have eight ranches that have state grazing leases and five that have state and BLM grazing leases as part of the makeup of the ranch. And then, that leaves two that are just -- well, we actually, OK, actually, it's three that are only composed of literally just Pima County owned fee land.

>> And I assume from your question to me or you made the comment earlier that a lot of the ranchers, you know, who had been ranching on that land where the land had been purchased by the county continued grazing on that land even though they didn't own it. How many -- some of those must have turned over by now and you must be making some decisions about how to bring on, you know, what would otherwise be considered a lessee or a permittee where it's not the person who was grandfathered in with the original transition. What does that selection process look like?

>> OK. Yeah, that's a couple of big questions. So yes, right. When I came on, I knew that starting in 2018, 2019, I would have to kind of have figured out a system or had some sort of transition process in mind for how to handle this because basically 100% of the ranches, when I came on, 15 of them were under agreement with the original owners. And two of those owners actually exited the two respective ranches that they were on because they did not want to conform to the county's standards and guidelines. And that all happened before I got here.

>> Yeah.

>> So when I got here, one of those ranches was pretty small and didn't have any grazing leases attached to it. So, that became more of a property that we don't really use for a ranch anymore just because it's so tiny, so that kind of fell off of our ranch list. So, we would have had 16. So really, now we're at 15 and the other ranch that was vacated was pretty big and we decided to make that, take advantage of the situation and kind of hold on to it and not lease it out right away and make it into kind of an education site where we now have a developing on ranch education program and I can -- that's kind of one offshoot of or one, yeah, one facet of my program that we're working on. But the transition process that you're asking about, yeah, that's a big deal. So, basically what we had to do as the county was worked with a few other departments to try to figure out what we could legally do because we can't just kind of make something up and do it. We kind of have to go through the rules that we have through real property --

>> Some formal process. Yeah.

>> Yes. And so actually, back in 2018, I started talking with Boulder County in Colorado. And started talking with them means I emailed somebody there. And they graciously supplied me with some information. But they have this fantastic website where they actually advertise farms that they're leasing out, farms or ranches. And so I looked at their program and what they have there, north of Denver, and I wasn't really familiar with that particular area but apparently, they've bought up a bunch of farms and ranches. And they leased them out through a request for proposal process.

>> Wow.

>> And I thought we were going to do that. I said, "Oh, perfect, let's just do that. They've already figured it out. Let's just use their process." Well, it wasn't that simple here because we don't -- what we have on each ranch, what was done originally was a ranch management agreement which isn't just a lease. It's a stewardship agreement with that previous ranch owner. And part of that deal was that, "Hey, you sell the ranch to us, you get this stewardship management agreement and you get to run your livestock operation here under our, you know, regulations." And so, basically, we came up with, OK, a ranch management agreement is a hybrid between a lease and a stewardship agreement. So we couldn't just go through procurement through a request for proposal process. And I'm kind of glad we didn't do it that way now because then, it would have had to be, had been advertised to the general public. And we probably would have gotten 700,000 responses and had to educate people on what a ranch was because there's lots of different ideas of what ranches are. So, we worked with our Real Property Department, the Procurement Department, Risk Management, and the county attorney to determine that the ranch management agreements were the hybrid of the lease and a stewardship management agreement. And so, what we did is we updated the current agreement template which is really just painful to read with all the legalese language. And we had to make some changes because some of the ranches have, well, all of the ranches have infrastructure that the rancher or current ranchers didn't want to maintain. And we needed to make it a little more clear in the agreement that if they're going to use it, they need to maintain it but we'll do capital improvement projects, for example, or do projects that will outlast their using the ranch. So we had to be kind of meet in the middle there. But what I've also been doing since 2016 is keeping a list of everybody that's ever called me to ask for land to graze on. And I actually get quite a few calls on an annual basis. Just every couple of months, somebody calls saying, "Hey, do you have any grazing leases available?" And I had to say, "No," for the first several years, "But I can put you on my list." And I made a distribution list of farmers, ranchers and agricultural and natural resource organizations. And so, putting it all together when we put together an outreach document that describes the ranch or the farm that's going to transition or this rancher or farmer is retiring or they're exiting, this is when it's going to be available and describing it. Now, I had a way to advertise it to everybody and anybody that had ever contacted me. And they got the notice. And then, they could forward it to their friends or somebody they know. And I get a lot of responses to those. So, basically, that leads me to the process that we use. So we had to think about transition situations and we have probably six or seven different transition situations on each ranch. Some ranches, the ranchers still owns like the little headquarters that their house is on. So could that cause a problem with a new manager because they don't -- you know, they might have to crisscross through their property getting to, you know, whatever part of the, you know, the next pasture. So, we have a couple situations like that. We have a couple situations where next generation is interested or they're not interested. Or we have a situation where the rancher just wants to retire and that's it. There's nobody else interested or their employee is not interested. If they have a longstanding employee that's part of the business already, we can do an automatic renewal of the agreement to them but only if they have a good history working with us. And actually, just yesterday, I put out a new outreach for a farm, our one and only working farm that is going to transition because the current family is retiring and transitioning out. And so, we literally are looking for new, one or more new farm managers to run their farms there. So, that's the first thing we have to do is figure out, OK, what situation are we in? And we kind of made a decision key. So, you know, if they want to continue with the ranch management agreement, if they don't want to retire and they just want to continue, we just make sure that they're in good standing and that we're ready to work with them again. But if they're not, we will proceed with an outreach to interested individuals, organizations, et cetera, so we can get the word out to the appropriate audience. And then, we go through the administrative process. So I make sure my distribution list is updated and then we draft the outreach notice. And anybody who responds to that is invited to the ranch or a farm tour which we're making mandatory because they really need to see what they're getting into. Then we send out an application packet. We go through an interview process. And we have evaluation criteria that are outlined in the application so applicants know in advance what to expect and what we're looking for. And then, we also have evaluation criteria that's specific to the farm or ranch so that's kind of the -- and then we make a selection based on who we think is the best. It's kind of based on the highest score but it's also based on -- it's also, it's really more qualitative. So, we want to make sure we have the right person or the right people out there.

>> And then they, whoever that, whoever is selected to be the grazer then also provides the livestock or are there livestock that's owned as part of the Range Program as well?

>> That's a good question. I would say, not anymore. We do not own, the county doesn't own livestock in that capacity anymore. But essentially, all of the ranches that were purchased by the county, the livestock stayed under ownership of the former owner or the first rancher that was on agreement with the county.

>> Right.

>> So really, we leave that -- if that ranch, if the outgoing rancher or farmer has livestock or equipment that they want to sell, they can either sell it or they can make a deal with the incoming manager.

>> Right. That is fascinating. I want to ask, just in case I forget about it later, you're doing some ranch education with the ranchers that are part of the program. Are you also doing ranch education with people that are not in the program but whose lands are connected?

>> Kind of. We're not quite there yet with the ranchers that are on agreement with us as far as developing a Ranch Education Program with them like for apprentices to come to their ranch. We're not quite there yet. We have one ranch that's a designated education ranch where I decided to start developing that site to be a safe place for basically any member of the public to learn about ranching there. We call it the Bar V Ranch. And one of my county staff actually was assigned to live at this ranch when it was vacated. This was one of the ranches vacated by a rancher that didn't want to stick with Pima County. So, one of my staff cowboys actually lives there with his family, and has spent the last five years upgrading all the infrastructure on the whole ranch which is mostly state grazing lease that the county holds. And we, about a year ago, we finally were able to purchase 20 mother cows that were bred and they had, and 17 of them successfully had their calves this past fall. And the goal of that -- we call them edu-cows or education cows. So we actually own those and so we had the first calf crop on the ground on the ranch for the education program. And we've been working with Pima County 4-H Program. And so, we've had several events out there over the course of the past six months where 4-H kids that are in the Beef Program or the Livestock Program have come out and learned about pregnancy checking or participated in branding and vaccinating. And finally, we actually had, we actually fulfilled the goal of selling some of those calves to these 4-H kids to be their 4-H project, steers or heifers. So that was kind of the endgame this year and that's how we started was with 4-H, but the goal is to make it much broader and reach out to other youth whether it's from the Pima County community centers where youth often go after school or during the summer or if it's classes that want to come out and do a ranch fieldtrip. I mean, we're really, I'm really open to really encouraging that kind of thing in the next stage of our program.

>> That leads me to ask one thing I want to make sure we got to. What do you do for monitoring? That does seem like one place where you could train some volunteers to assist with that. I know that's been done in some other places and I'm personally interested in what other parts of the country are doing for, you know, time and cost-effective ranch monitoring. So I'm curious what methods you're using to monitor success or monitor progress or lack of progress toward rangeland health attributes on these ranches.

>> Right, that's a great, that's a good question. So, when I came onboard in 2016, the monitoring program was actually pretty well established and so that was a really good thing that happened. So we had long-term transects or key areas established on every ranch expect for three of them. So I spent my first three season, my first three monitoring seasons which here, we monitor post-monsoon, September, October, November. And, yeah, three of those seasons were spent doing inventory transects, so covering the whole ranch on every important ecological site. And we did, I did hire a seasonal. I had several -- I had a series of part-time range specialist folks that helped me. And I got a lot of help from inviting the NRCS, the local NRCS office folks out that are range managers themselves. So, really, monitoring has been a team effort for, I think, as long as the Range Program has been in existence. So, when I came on, I also had other staff not under me but coworkers that were more natural resource specialists that would come and help me do this monitoring because I couldn't go out and do it by myself or just with one NRCS person. So, often, I had two county staff that are knowledgeable about plants come and help me, and an NRCS person and the rancher. So, we often had five or six people coming so that's always been -- getting enough help with the monitoring has always been pretty good. And that's with trend and condition monitoring. And now, finally, I think if you read the part of the White Paper that said, I really needed a full-time assistant, what we -- I finally got my full-time assistant last November. And that's been fantastic because now, we actually have two full-time people devoted to this because some of the other natural resource staff over the years have been committed to other things. So it has been harder to do other kinds of monitoring like utilization and the spring with the drought monitoring so kind of a modified version of trend monitoring at these established key areas and doing some comparisons with remote-sensing data so that was kind of a new thing. But again, I could really only do that because I have full-time help now.

>> Yeah. Yeah. What specific methods are you using for long-term trend monitoring?

>> So, we're using case frequency, dry/wet rank, ground cover, and sometimes fetch where it's appropriate, so measuring the distance to the nearest perennial plant. And we're using the 40 by 40 centimeter frame and generally doing two lines of 50. And in some cases, four lines of 50 or two lines of 100 to 200 frames. We've cut it back to 100 because we found we can basically get similar results with the 100 frames instead of 200. But those are the methods that work best for us. And we use the VGS or the Vegetation GIS System, the computerized, the software that we use on a ruggedized laptop to more efficiently record that data in the field so that we can go over the results right away in the field with the manager. So, we do that.

>> And that's per ranch or per ecological site on the ranch?

>> It's per ecological site or per key area, yeah.

>> Got it.

>> And when we've done the -- on the three ranches where we conducted inventory where we actually, you know, established way more inventory transects than we were going to monitor in the future, meaning that we would select key areas from those --

>> Right.

>>-- we did perform rangeland health at all of the inventories transects and then, I just -- you know, whenever -- so this year for example, this summer, I need to asses, hey, you know, where should we do rangeland health? Where are we on the 10-year timeline? Because generally, I understand that you're supposed to do rangeland health assessments about every 10 years.

>> That sounds good. I like those methods. You mentioned, I don't know whether you wrote the paper but in the White Paper that discusses some of the history of the program and some of the current financial needs of the program, you mentioned several economic benefits to the county that were direct results of these conservation efforts. And the first one that's on that list probably first because it would be pretty compelling to both voters and to county government leaders is that you can achieve lower flood insurance premiums as a result of these conservation efforts that provide increased flood attenuation. Can you speak more to that?

>> Yeah, that's a good -- I'm glad you pulled that out there. It's been a while since I read that detail. But, yeah, I mean, basically maintaining ecological function across these vast tracts of lands that voters approve to be purchased, overall, that will decrease runoff if the land is managed properly. And influence things like, yeah, those flood insurance rates and so, that's one, yeah, that's one way to measure the value of conservation.

>> Right, in actual dollars.

>> Yeah.

>> Yeah. I was not aware of this community rating system that provides a mechanism to reduce official flood insurance premiums in response to floodplain management and flood awareness education. That is really interesting.

>> Right. Yeah, it is interesting. And that, we also have, I don't know how common this is across the west, but we have -- accompanying Pima County, we also have a Flood Control District that's kind of a, I want to say subsidiary of Pima County but they have their own tax income. So, they feel like another county department to me and I work with them all the time on open space and ranchlands. But really, they're kind of their own entity but obviously paired with the county and so, we often turn to them for funding because they have their own tax jurisdiction.

>> Yeah. The paper also mentions aquifer recharge and that that reduces groundwater pumping cost.

>> Yeah.

>> Is that an increase in the -- I guess a decrease in the necessary depth of pumping?

>> Yes. I would say, yes, that makes sense. Yeah, I think my colleague, Brian [assumed spelling] probably included that. Yeah. If that's generally true, yeah, it is true.

>> OK.

>> Tucson itself is in a good spot and the land surrounding it because we do have a pretty good groundwater supply. When this White Paper was written, it was much better than it is now because now, there's all sorts of different reports saying it's going down mainly in areas that have high economic development right now, housing development to be specific which isn't surprising, you know.

>> Yeah.

>> We're just in this -- we're in a pretty horrible drought right now as is most of the west. And, yeah, back when the aquifer did recharge, it probably did reduce pumping cost and we -- you know, Tucson has never been completely reliant on the central areas on a project water from the Colorado River and I hope whenever are reliant on that because it'll -- it's going to be receiving cuts pretty soon. And we do receive some of it. And I think that definitely helps with the groundwater reserves here because otherwise, we'd have to pump more groundwater. But then, that also makes us reliant on the Colorado, so.

>> Yeah. Another interesting benefit that was listed here that reminds me of something I've heard Rick Knight talk about is the increase in property tax revenue in areas that are near these, you know, public open space working lands because people are willing to pay more money for those properties and those homes. And that very directly increases tax revenue because it increases the assessed value of the properties. I remember him talking about some of this margin effect where the properties that are adjacent to working lands particularly in scenic open space are often tremendously valuable.

>> Oh yes, yes, definitely. Yeah. And in a place like Tucson, I mean, being even just a little bit closer to one of the mountain parks where you can go out there, take your dog and go hiking. Or just, you know, if you're in the city center, it kind of takes forever to get outside the city now and especially when it's hot and it's just, you know, temperatures are a little cooler if you're closer to open space generally. In fact, my husband and I actually recently purchased a home on the west side of town, still in the City of Tucson limits but we're 10 minutes from a trailhead and we're just -- I would say our overall happiness has risen and it's just so much nicer.

>> Yeah.

>> And it didn't even have to be right next to open space. I mean, there are definitely those but it makes like a lot more pleasant.

>> How do these range properties or the county I suppose handle recreation? Are they considered public lands that are mostly open to recreation? I would assume there are some limits to that. You know, for example, I've seen in Washington states and places where off-road vehicle use just absolutely destroys otherwise nice native range ground. How do you handle recreation?

>> Oh, yeah. Well, I wish I could tell you we handle it really, really well but we really don't or we -- you know, the thought and intention is great but we're just like any other area. We are seeing an exponential increase in OHV use, you know, controlling access on the ranches that the county administers. And I say it that way because we don't own every acre of each ranch or every ranch complex. It's really difficult because we own, oh, this parcel, it's county-owned but the next huge parcel is state land and then the next land is county owned. And it's, you know, so many -- the general public just doesn't keep track of that unless they're hunters. Most of the time, hunters are pretty good about knowing whose lands they're on. But we definitely have those few hunters that kind of ruin it for everybody and do irresponsible things on the land. But we've definitely seen, yeah, an exponential increase of OHV use and target shooting on county lands, state trust lands. And it's really hard to keep a gate locked or to control access. We tried -- we do have a permitted access point on one of the ranches that does help control the number of people that go in, but it's just so hard to control that and regulate. And, yeah, that's probably our absolute biggest challenge right now.

>> Yeah. Last question for you, you mentioned there was a bond to do the initial purchase from the ranchers, have those -- what was the timeframe on those bonds and is there current money that is available to continue that program? And to what extent are ranchers in the area availing themselves of other conservation trust or conservation easements, you know, that are maintained by organizations like, you know, say The Nature Conversancy?

>> Right. So, from what I understand, the first conservation bond in 2004, and I'm sorry I don't have the number off the top of my head.

>> Yeah.

>> But it was upwards of, I believe it was upwards of $100 million, definitely upwards of $100 million. I think they are 30-year bonds but I need to double check on that and I can get you that fact.

>> No, that's interesting. I was just curious, you know, whether that was kind of a one-time thing or if there's an intent to keep at least the possibility of expansion as part of that program?

>> I see. Yeah, there was that second bond in 2007 that was a little bit less money, but they were basically one-time deals when the momentum of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan Implementation Program was still there, and it was still easier to convince voters. And it was true. There was a lot of risk to ranches and farmland being sold to development. And I would say that's still the case but there's definitely a lot less of a push to put more bonds on the ballot. And when I came on in 2016, there was one more because the county really wanted to purchase the rest of a ranch because they had only purchased some of the private land in it but not the other land that would make it contiguous. And it failed. So, I think it's difficult for people to see the benefits of these ranches because they're more remote than for example, Tucson Mountain Park that's right outside the Tucson. You have to drive a little further. People kind of don't really know where they are and you have to -- you know, people need really specific maps and so that's gotten better, just communicate to the public what we have because we do want the public to learn and go to these ranches. We just -- but when I came on, there was a lot of mistrust from the ranchers of not only the county but the public coming on to the ranches. And they thought there was going to be a total free for all of the county letting the public on to all the ranches, and all their favorites spots, and their houses and it just -- there were a lot of misunderstandings.

>> Right.

>> But I think the people that really care about the ranchland, they're the ones that call and ask and say, "Hey, how can I get to Rancho Seco?" or "How can I get to Stan's Ranch?" And I can give them a map or point them to the website that has the map and then they can go do that as long as they, you know, follow the rules that we have for public access.

>> Yeah, and I love that. I thought that was my last question but it's not. I meant to ask you, what do ranchers who are new to this that are effectively leasing this land, what do they pay for that access or do they not? And, you know, is that like a standard state rate for example of matching whatever the AUM rate is on state trust lands or is it something negotiated? Or is it more of an in-kind trade of, you know, effort on the part of the rancher trading for effectively grazing fees?

>> Right. It's a little, well, it was a little of both in the beginning with the original 15 ranch agreements. So basically, the rancher is responsible for all of the fees that State Land Department charge for grazing on state trust lands, if they had a ranch that had state trust lands. So they had to pay all those grazing fees by AUM so whatever the rate would be and the sublease fee because technically, the county subleases to each rancher on a ranch that has state land as part of the ranch. And so they would have to pay all those grazing fees. The county originally did not charge a fee for any grazing on the county-owned lands mainly because those lands, they weren't really big enough to have a significant grazing component. They were either headquarters or they were [inaudible] pastures or they just didn't have -- they were just too small to have really high grazing value. Now, we know that's not necessarily true and some -- we do have three ranches that are entirely county fee land. They're not super big but they do consist of a few thousand acres. So, with all new agreements, any agreement that has expired so we've done -- we're going to be going on our fourth management agreement that we're either advertising or had expired and we're renewing. All of the updating of the template of those agreements is going to include a grazing fee to Pima County for any acreage that has grazing capacity.

>> Yeah.

>> If there is no grazing capacity like one ranch, it's 97% state trust land and we have little tiny headquarters that our new range manager is living on. And so, instead of a grazing fee, we're charging a reasonable annual facilities use fee for the -- because there's a nice set of corrals, a loading chute, a tack room and shop, that kind of thing. And in some cases, there's a house. So, we do have to charge them some rent but it's a reduced rent from market rate. And because we understand that there's an exchange of management so the county basically -- they're not charging a fee, you know, a lease fee on top of everything else for this ranch to be managed with their cows. This is where the stewardship agreement comes in and the value of that is balanced with, you know, we're not going to charge them to, you know, buy a piece of land from us for the ranch or to pay us a huge fee every year. We keep it pretty minimal because we want to make it affordable.

>> Right. Yeah, that's a fascinating program. I'm going to let you go but I want to ask, is there anything that you wanted to cover that I didn't ask about before we quit?

>> I guess the biggest detail I missed that is pretty important is our Multi-species Conservation Plan or MSCP that was actually meant to accompany the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. And this MSCP is what actually implements the biological element of the SDCP and that didn't get -- that wasn't officially implemented until 2016 which happened to be the year I came on with Pima County. And so, basically, the Multi-species Conservation Plan was a plan that another department in the county wrote, our Office of Sustainability and Conservation. The biologist wrote this plan and submitted it to the US Fish and Wildlife Service to apply for a Section 10 permit. And I'm so used to hearing about, I was so used to hearing about Section 7 in the Endangered Species Act. But they wanted to apply for a Section 10 permit basically saying, "Hey, we're going to protect these 44 species." And there is a list of 44 plant/animal species, some listed as endangered, some not that are important -- that were deemed important in Pima County, and saying, "Hey, we're going to protect all these species by using all these ranches that were purchased and other open space properties as mitigation land for other economic development projects that happen elsewhere in the county." So, if this developer develops this shopping mall over here, we're going to use credits from ranch x or from this open space property x that has these particular habitats for these animals. And we're going to use that as mitigation for this project over here.

>> Right.

>> That's a really bad way to explain it. There's a much -- my colleagues over at the other department could explain it much better. But that's the really basic framework of that.

>> Yeah. With that, how is the owl doing?

>> The cactus ferruginous pygmy owl?

>> Yes.

>> That took me three years to learn how to say.

>> I won't even attempt it. Yeah, that's my question.

>> Yeah, the owl is actually doing pretty well, I think. In fact, it's been detected several times on a few of our ranches, southwest of Tucson. And that's pretty exciting because -- and again, sometimes it's on state trust land, sometimes it's on county land. But it's just nice to know that they're there. And yeah, it's nice to know that the program seems to be working.

>> Good. Well, maybe next time, we can talk about the other 43 species. But for now --

>> Great.

>> -- I want to thank you for joining me on the Art of Range. And I really do love what you're doing.

>> Thank you. It's nice to be able to share what we've been working on here.

>> Thank you for listening to the Art of Range podcast. You can subscribe to and review the show through iTunes or your favorite podcasting app so you never miss an episode. Just search for Art of Range. If you have questions or comments for us to address in a future episode, send an email to For articles and links to resources mentioned in the podcast, please see the show notes at Listen or feedback is important to the success of our mission, "Empowering rangeland managers." Please take a moment to fill out a brief survey at This podcast is produced by CAHNRS Communications in the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. The project is supported by the University of Arizona and funded by the Western Center for Risk Management Education through the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

>> The views, thoughts and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are their own and does not imply Washington State University's endorsement.

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