A black and white photo taken in the early 1960s shows four Buckelew siblings with their father, Bob Buckelew. Bob is perched on a John Deere tractor, holding baby Clara in his lap. He’s smiling against the sun, a pipe dangling from his lips. Barbara and Nick are riding in a Radio Flyer wagon attached to the tractor. Behind them, Dorothy sits on a cruiser bicycle, her hair swept up in pigtails. In the background is a white fence, an open field, and the gentle rise of the Roskruge Mountains.
In 1954, at the age of 19, Bob began farming in Avra Valley. Together, he and his wife, Clara, raised four children and farmed cotton and wheat. In 1964, the family moved to Tucson so the kids could attend school.
Nick says he was always pulled back to the farm. After graduating from the University of Arizona in 1976, he moved back to Avra Valley and began growing conventional wheat and cotton on 320 acres. “I’d always come back and work on the farm in the summer, even when we lived in town. My dad was a successful farmer, and I guess I was following in his footprints,” he says.
Buckelew Farm has changed significantly since 1954. Nick and his wife, Laurie, have raised cattle, corn, wheat, and cotton. In 1984, they grew their first pumpkin crop, which catapulted them into the business of pumpkin festivals. Twenty years ago, Nick attended a direct-market farm conference and met a farmer who swore that his corn maze helped stabilize the farm’s finances. Now, each fall, Buckelew Farm crawls with thousands of visitors for the annual Pumpkin Festival & Corn Maze.
The land that is Buckelew Farm has also spent years morphing into different shapes. At one point, Bob and Clara were forced to sell the southern part of the farm. Then Nick and Laurie purchased additional acreage in the 1980s. In 2002, the family sold the water rights for portions of the original property to the City of Tucson. In 2006, a housing developer approached the Buckelews with a high-dollar offer to buy the farm. Of the four Buckelew siblings, Nick was the one who felt most attached to it. His sisters had long since moved away, but their parents had deeded the farm equally to all four children. And his sisters wanted to sell.
The property was already in escrow when Nick, disturbed by the idea of his family farm turned into a housing development, went to the Arizona Open Land Trust for help. Approximately 160 acres of the farm was virtually undisturbed, including a riparian area that supported native and migratory wildlife. After a survey, it was determined that Buckelew Farm provided valuable habitat for rare and endangered species, including the pygmy owl, Swainson’s hawk, Bell’s vireo, western yellow-billed cuckoo, western yellow bat, western burrowing owl, Tucson shovel-nosed snake, and Pima pineapple cactus.
In October 2006, the land trust facilitated Pima County’s acquisition of Buckelew Farm as a permanent protected open space (505 acres of irrigated and undeveloped land, along with federal and state grazing rights totaling more than 2,000 acres). The Buckelews kept a 10-acre homestead with three houses and a workshop. The land trust negotiated a contract wherein the Buckelews would manage the property for the county, continuing their operation as they have for decades.
On a warm fall morning at the office of Arizona Land and Water Trust, or ALWT, sunlight streams through the windows, catching the framed photographs of ranches and grasslands on the wall. Liz Petterson, executive director, and Diana Freshwater, president, tell me stories about their work with the land trust. The stories are funny, sad, heartening—habitats saved, ranchers in dire financial straits, curmudgeon landowners softened over time.
To tell the story of the land trust is to also tell the stories of the wildlife and waterways that make up our Baja Arizona landscapes—and the people who have stewarded and fought tirelessly for them. In 1997, when the cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl was listed as an endangered species, it was the policy work of Chuck Huckelberry and the persistence of Maeveen Behan that resulted in the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan—regarded by many scientists and land planners as the first land management plan to truly balance nature and growth. (“As a land planner, I look at it and say this transformed Pima County,” says Freshwater). It was Priscilla Robinson of Southwest Environmental Service (“A force of nature,” remembers Freshwater), who worked to shut down the copper smelter in Douglas, after range grass began to suffer and leukemia clusters emerged. After the smelter closed in the early 1980s, Robinson worked with others to develop the state’s first conservation easement legislation.
The work of a land trust is to acquire and manage sensitive lands. Think of their work according to the “stick” analogy: When you purchase a property, you essentially purchase an invisible bundle of sticks. These sticks are your property rights and are attached to the deed itself—the right to subdivide, the right to build, the right to pump groundwater from a well. But if you aren’t going to use all of your sticks—say, the stick that allows you to develop—you can sell one to a trust for a portion of the land value. This effectively extinguishes the right forever, but without disturbing the entire bundle. Trusts offer various options for landowners, including facilitated acquisition of land (in which another entity purchases the land as protected space), water fallow leases (in which the trust compensates a farmer for fallowing a portion of a property, in order to replenish the water table and restore river flow), or holding a property’s development rights in perpetuity through a conservation easement.
With roots that stretch back to 1978, Arizona Open Land Trust is the oldest and first local land trust in Arizona. In 2008, Southeast Arizona Land Trust merged with AOLT to become the ALWT. The merger brought together “two kinds of minds,” says Dennis Moroney, a rancher and board member at the time of the merger. “And we were all focused on one objective—to save open country and land.” Moroney remembers passionate discussions between ranchers, environmentalists, lawyers, and accountants, which ultimately helped the organization evolve.
As the ALWT has grown, it has gained national recognition, serving in a leadership role for the National Alliance of Land Trusts. In 2013, it received national accreditation, “a rigorous process that looks at every deal, every document,” says Petterson. Only 317 out of approximately 1,700 land trusts nationwide are accredited.
In 2007, the organization embraced a programmatic emphasis on water conservation, becoming the state’s only water trust. “Water was always the sticking point,” says Petterson, referring to years of talks with landowners and agencies. So the land trust launched a Desert Rivers Initiative, designed to develop conservation strategies to secure water for riparian habitat and rural livelihoods. With its partners, the University of Arizona Department of Hydrology and Water Resources and the environmental company Ecosystem Economics, ALWT “negotiates water lease agreements that benefit the agriculture operation and help to restore the riparian flows,” says Petterson. There are five agreements (one in the lower San Pedro and four on the upper Gila River), in which the landowners agree to fallow certain sections of land for a season or up to a year.
Across the country, a movement is growing among land trusts to protect working landscapes and help beginning farmers access land. Holly Rippon-Butler, land access program director for the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), says that access to land is a significant hurdle for new farmers. The increase in cost of farmland is due to factors that include competition from developers, as well as nonfarmers purchasing second homes. Both scenarios translate to working lands being taken out of production, and the cost of farmland spiking beyond what is affordable for farmers.
With 30 percent of American farmers over the age of 65, it is a critical time to protect working lands. According to the NYFC, more than two-thirds of the farmland in the United States will change hands over the next two decades. The USDA predicts that 500,000 farmers (one-quarter of farmers nationwide) will retire in the next 20 years. That this shift will impact our food security is an understatement.
Rippon-Butler notes that land trusts might not be the answer for every farmer. Conservation easements are legally binding documents that restrict specific activities on a piece of land in perpetuity. “Choosing to place an easement on a property is a big decision and one that should be considered carefully,” she says.
But for many farmers, land trusts are important allies. Money made from selling development rights can be used to pay off debt, purchase new equipment, or lower the purchase price of land to make it more affordable for beginning farmers. The crux of the relationship potential between farmers and land trusts rests in the fact that they have a mutual interest in keeping working lands from being developed.
“Innovative land trusts understand that farm viability is a key component of farmland conservation and are exploring ways in which they can be strong supporters of the agricultural community in their area,” Rippon-Butler says. ALWT is one of those innovative land trusts, working to ensure that farmers and ranchers are able to stay in business and remain on their land.
“Working lands are a conservation value,” says Petterson. In 2007, ALWT began co-hosting a series of Ranching into the Future workshops focusing on many of these issues. The workshop series draws hundreds of participants, and invariably the question surfaces: What’s going to happen to our land when we’re gone?
Early in 2015, Fort Huachuca was designated a “sentinel landscape,” one of only three in the country. This designation was developed as a partnership between the departments of Defense, Interior, and Agriculture to support “efforts to promote working lands, protect wildlife habitat, and ensure military readiness at military bases.” Fort Huachuca, in partnership with ALWT, was awarded a $5 million grant from the Department of Defense to protect working lands and wildlife habitat around Fort Huachuca.
Though the partnership may seem unlikely, it has had real benefits for open spaces near Fort Huachuca. The money funded two conservation easements—a total of more than 1,600 acres—on Rain Valley Ranch, which sits between the Whetstone and Mustang mountains in Sonoita. Grace Wystrach, whose family owned Rain Valley Ranch from 1949 to 1987, was also able to fund a conservation easement on Mountain View Ranch, the ranch she now owns with her husband, Michael. Through a mix of military readiness funds, the Wystrachs sold their development rights to 396 acres of their 411-acre property.
“We were in a situation where we were needing to get some money out of our property,” says Grace of the decision to place a conservation easement on their property. And even though they received less money than if they had divided it up, she says, “I didn’t want to see it chopped up.”
When Grace was growing up on Rain Valley Ranch, Sonoita was still open country. Gradually, as families passed on and younger generations couldn’t afford the inheritance taxes, the land began to be sold and developed. And while the Wystrachs don’t completely dismiss the value of development (they are also the owners of Sonoita’s Steak Out Restaurant & Saloon), they acknowledge that it comes with very real consequences, including a drop in the water table.
When I ask Grace what her land means to her on an emotional level, her voice swells. “It means a lot,” she says. “I love my land. I inherit that from my mother … I love the open spaces and the land, and the wildlife, and the freedom of being able to look out and not see a house next door.”
Grace and Michael raised six children, who are now mostly scattered across the country. One daughter still lives in the area and is attached to the Hereford operation and the land. Grace says she isn’t sure that her kids will choose to keep the ranch after they inherit it, but even if they sell, the property will never be able to be subdivided or developed.
“Even though I might be long gone, it’s important to me that my beautiful property will not be covered in houses,” she says.
To date, ALWT has protected more than 45,000 acres in southern Arizona, including grasslands, riparian habitat, urban reserves and parks, and working landscapes. As an organization, they have proudly stood in the intersection between environmentalism and agriculture, ardent defenders of ranchers and migratory birds. They have been persistent and patient witnesses, listeners, and bridge builders. Freshwater speaks of the years of “spadework and trust-building” with landowners, agencies, funders, and fellow conservation groups—some with vastly differing political views. A 501(c)(3) organization, ALWT works only with willing landowners who approach them for help.
“We ask, ‘What can we do to help you protect this property? What is your vision for this property?’ We would never say ‘We think you should do this, or do that.’ We have a high respect for private property rights,” says Petterson.
Instead, they simply present their toolbox: conservation easements, facilitated acquisitions, water lease agreements. For many of the landowners they have represented, the ALWT staff has stuck around long enough to become family. They have sat at the same dinner table for years—learning a property’s history, the dynamics of a family, answering questions over and over about complicated purchase agreements and easement restrictions.
“It’s such an honor to work with these families,” Petterson says, “You’re a psychologist sometimes—you play all these roles.” Over the years, Petterson and Freshwater have witnessed death, divorce, and bankruptcy. They have respected that the relationship between land and land steward is deeply personal—often, the land is the other family member.
In the 1980s, Dennis and Deb Moroney purchased a ranch and cattle company near Prescott. They settled for a minimal down payment and a 10-year period of low mortgage payments, after which a giant balloon payment would be due. Eventually, their initial $1 million investment turned into $2.8 million in debt. “I just felt like I was sort of duct-taped and tied to the railroad tracks. And the train was coming down the tracks …” Dennis says, trailing off. “It was an absolutely desperate situation.”
As the 10-year mark approached, he and Deb put the ranch on the market just to get out from under the upcoming payment. Offers came in and fell through, so Dennis went to real estate school to learn how to manage the sale himself. He contacted “any entity on the planet that had made noise about helping struggling ranchers or saving land,” but none of them could help. He joined the Board of the Central Arizona Land Trust and became convinced that land trusts were untapped opportunities for farmers and ranchers trying to unbury themselves from debt. They finally sold the property one week before the payment was due.
They used the money from the sale for the down payment on another ranch—47 Ranch—just north of Bisbee. By that time, Dennis says, “I was a very knowledgeable person about desperate ways of financing and how to save [yourself] from total destruction.” He joined the board of the Southeast Arizona Land Trust, and started working to find an easement partner. Because the Moroneys had purchased the property to produce food, they had no intention of subdividing or developing the land. A conservation easement, forever forfeiting the development rights, seemed a no-brainer—and one that could recoup their initial investment on the property.
Dennis invited Arizona Game and Fish out to his property to talk about easement potential. They went out to Abbott Spring to eat their lunch, Dennis says. “And a bobcat comes walking down the hill, and then different weird birds are coming in. These people are going, ‘Wow! This is amazing!’”
What followed was the recording of rare species of dirt finks, leopard frogs, rattlesnakes, and more. Based on the habitat value, the Moroneys received funding for their conservation easement. The Moroneys had to donate 25 percent of the value of the land, but were paid 75 percent of the property value for the development rights—enough to pay off their mortgage. “After being 2.8 million dollars in debt to having no mortgage on a ranch,” says Dennis, “it was beyond a dream come true.”
In 2013, the Moroneys negotiated a second conservation easement on a different piece of the ranch, which paid off their operating loan. Since then, the Moroneys have been operating debt-free and intend to stay that way.
In an interview published in the 2014 ALWT Annual Report, Dennis Moroney says, “I think that the biggest unmet need at this time is the issue of the transition of agriculture from one generation to the next. We need to match eager, willing, enthusiastic, passionate young people with old worn-out crusty farmers and ranchers who really need to get the heck out of the way.”
And the Moroneys intend to do just that. They are transitioning to an employee-owned business model. Once Dennis and Deb are no longer able to work, or don’t want to, the ranch business will transfer to the employees, who by that time will have earned thousands of hours of sweat equity. And as part of the transition plan, the Moroneys will be able to stay in their home until they die.
“It’s gratifying for someone like myself who’s spent my lifetime just trying to get a ranch,” says Dennis. “And to actually be in a situation where it’s paid for—I don’t think it would have happened without the tools of a conservation easement.”
Dennis Moroney remains optimistic about the future, in large part because of his experience with land trusts providing a tangible option for recouping property costs and protecting agricultural land. His optimism is contagious. ✜
Arizona Land and Water Trust. 3127 N. Cherry Ave. 520.577.8564. Alwt.org.
Debbie Weingarten is a freelance writer. She serves on the City of Tucson’s Commission for Food Heritage, Security, and Economy, and the Pima County Food Alliance Leadership Council. She is the co-founder of the Farm Education and Resource Network (FERN).