Altar Valley Conservation Alliance

Posted: Oct 12, 2005
Written by: 
Brendan Smith, updated by Kathryn Sachs

Location: Altar Valley is located in the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona, roughly 30 miles southwest of Tucson. Part of the Santa Cruz Watershed, Altar Valley covers approximately 700,000 acres centered on the Altar Wash, which flows northward from the Mexican border. Nearly half the valley is state trust land, with roughly 20 percent in private ownership, another 20 percent in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, and the remainder split among Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Tohono O'odham Nation lands. 

Objective: The Altar Valley Conservation Alliance (AVCA) works on habitat restoration and conservation in the Altar Valley, including preservation of family ranching against development pressures, erosion control along the Altar Wash, the return of natural fire and prescribed burns, and protection of native species, including six that are threatened or endangered. Participants: Local ranching families, Arizona State Land Department, University of Arizona, Arizona Game and Fish Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), Pima County, Pima Natural Resource Conservation District, The Nature Conservancy, Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Border Patrol, Arizona Land & Water Trust, hunting groups, hikers, and other individual volunteers who care about the area's ecological values and natural amenities.  

Participants: Local ranching families, Arizona State Land Department, University of Arizona, Arizona Game and Fish Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), Pima County, Pima Natural Resource Conservation District, The Nature Conservancy, Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Border Patrol, Arizona Land & Water Trust, hunting groups, hikers, and other individual volunteers who care about the area's ecological values and natural amenities. 

History: The Sonoran Desert's history extends back 40 million years to when intense volcanic and tectonic activity produced the region's characteristic basin and range topography. The desert covers approximately 120,000 square miles in southern Arizona and California, as well as most of the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California. According to the National Park Service, the Sonoran Desert is thought to have the greatest species diversity of any desert in North America. 


The Altar Valley represents the largest unfragmented Sonoran Desert landscape in Pima County, Arizona, and is home to 24 species of concern. Uncontrolled mining and grazing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries degraded the valley environment. Ranching families now living in the valley have adopted more ecologically sound grazing practices, but are concerned about development pressure from the sprawling Tucson metropolitan area. With annual population growth of up to 30,000 new residents, Pima County estimates seven to 10 square miles of desert are lost each year to development.

In 1995, 12 local ranching families formed the Altar Valley Conservation Alliance. "We were very interested in keeping the working landscape open and working on more enhanced resource protection," says AVCA co-president Mary Miller, who owns Elkhorn Ranch in Altar Valley with her husband, Charley. "So many of the issues cross ranch lines and cross land-ownership lines. We're part of a watershed, and we needed to look at the watershed as a whole. Obviously, you have a stronger voice when you're working together." In 2000, the AVCA incorporated as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. 

In conjunction with the work of the AVCA, Pima County is a valuable partner in land management in the Altar Valley. The county’s Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, established in 2001, seeks to preserve ranches as key partners in habitat conservation. The plan identifies critical landscapes and locations of 33 primary species for protection. Areas of high overlap of critical landscapes and species become priority lands for purchase and conservation by the county. Much of Altar Valley is identified as a Priority Ranch Conservation Resource, as well as Priority Habitat and Corridor for native species, including the endangered cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl, Pima pineapple cactus, and Chiricahua leopard frog. 

In 2004, voters approved the Pima County Bond Program, which made available $164 million dollars for strategic land acquisitions. This has been a popular tool for preserving ranchlands in the Altar Valley because ranch owners there have been very willing to sell fee title to their lands to the county, and to continue to live on, operate, and manage the properties according to “Ranch Management Agreements.” These agreements ensure that practices that protect and enhance biotic and cultural resources will continue on the lands while ensuring that the lands will be protected from unchecked suburban growth. The program has preserved ranching in the face of development pressures from Tucson and the economic challenges of cattle raising in the Southwest. 

Most recently, Altar Valley has become a critical area for research of jaguars, a listed “endangered” species. Jaguars are most threatened by habitat loss due to increased development. Given this, the Altar Valley Conservation Alliance goals align well with those of jaguar habitat preservation. A multi-agency team led by the Arizona and New Mexico Game and Fish Departments monitors the animals and works with the Malpai Borderlands Group, ranchers, and other parties to conserve habitat. While jaguars present a challenge to ranchers, at least seven Altar Valley watershed landowners have shown a commitment to conserving territory for the animals by joining the Borderlands Jaguar Protection Project. 

In 2000, the AVCA used an $80,000 grant from the Arizona Water Protection Fund to produce a resource assessment for the Altar Valley. A GIS database was created with eight layers: cultural features (fences, roads, stock tanks, and wells), ecological sites, land ownership, soils, and vegetation. The database was used by AVCA to analyze the Valley's resources and identify proposed Conservation Action Sites. "Pima County used it to assess the formation of cooperative groups with land holdings that contain special-status species, especially cactus ferruginous pygmy-wols," reports WestLand Resources, which prepared the database and associated maps. The grant also enabled preparation of an environmental assessment for a soil retention structure on Brawley Wash. 

In 2002 and 2003, through AVCA's outreach efforts, AmeriCorps volunteers built erosion-control structures and surveyed Pima pineapple cactus at King's Anvil Ranch. AVCA partnered with the Sonoran Institute, which signed a memorandum of understanding with the AVCA in 2003 on efforts to restore the Altar Wash and other projects. Amy McCoy, the Sonoran Institute's Santa Cruz watershed project manager who has attended AVCA meetings as an advisor, said in a 2005 interview that it's important to work with the ranchers, who "understand more than anybody what the land needs and what is missing." 


In 2002, AVCA members created Arizona's first privately owned endangered-species conservation bank on the Palo Alto Ranch to help protect the endangered Pima pineapple cactus. Ross and Susan Humphreys purchased the Palo Alto Ranch in 2000 to prevent its sale to a real-estate developer and to create the conservation bank. "The bank will help us protect 32,000 acres of open space in the center of the Altar Valley in cooperation with the Service and our ranching neighbors. It is an example of conservation from the grassroots, initiated from the private sector and managed in perpetuity by a cooperative association of ranching families. The bank is one tool our neighbors and we are using to enhance the 555,000-acres working landscape we care for very deeply, " said Ross Humphrey in the USFWS December 2002 announcement of the bank's creation. 

Credits can be purchased by landowners, municipalities, or developers "to offset the effects of their projects at ratios to be established by the Service based on the lost habitat's value to the species' survival," say the USFWS. "The cost of each conservation credit is determined by the owner of the bank." AVCA does not manage the land in the bank nor sell the credits. Rather, an AVCA committee manages the money that is set aside by the Humphreys from their sale of the credits to fund the on-the-ground cost of conserving the endangered cactus. AVCA reports regularly to the USFWS and the landowners on the status of the fund and whether the landowners are in compliance with the requirements the USFWS set for the conservation bank. In 2003, with the help of a $250,000 grant from the EPA, the Palo Alto Ranch replaced dilapidated 1950-era erosion-control dikes in the Altar Wash 

The Altar Valley resource assessment provided the basis for the 2003 development of an ambitious habitat conservation plan to protect six endangered or threatened species. The plan was funded in part by grants from the USFWS and the Sonoran Institute and was developed in cooperation with the NRCS, Arizona State Land Department, and Arizona Department of Water Resources. It outlined a wide range of conservation projects including endangered-species protection, erosion-control structures, and environmental safeguards for fencing and pipelines. AVCA did not implement the draft plan, Pat King explains, because of the prohibitive cost of many proposed projects, concerns among ranchers about intensive monitoring and regulation requirements, and fear of potential lawsuits by environmentalists if the ranchers couldn't comply with all of the plan's provisions. Instead, the AVCA decided to focus on specific workable projects, including an ongoing effort to create safe harbors for the endangered Chiricahua leopard frogs at stock ponds built by ranchers. The initial work done on the habitat conservation plan, however, proved useful in the later development of a fire management plan for the Valley. 

In September 2004, Dale Hall, then director of the Southwest Region for the USFWS, testified before Congress on national forest management and the Endangered Species Act. In comments on collaboration with local groups, Hall stated, "Private efforts like those of the Malpai Borderlands Group and the Altar Valley Conservation Alliance in southern Arizona demonstrate what private landowners can do when they are given a chance and are respected as the land stewards they truly are." 

In spring 2005, the Elkhorn Ranch invited docents from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum to the ranch to broaden their understanding of the natural and cultural history of the area. The museum, which overlooks the Altar Valley, hosts 500,000 visitors a year. The museum and the AVCA also worked together to bring the museum's Desert Ark to a local elementary school to teach the children about Sonoran Desert animals. 

AVCA has stepped up its efforts to control erosion throughout the watershed. Since 2005 AVCA has worked with ranchers, farmers, miners, the University of Arizona, county, state, and federal agencies to bring stream hydrology expert, Bill Zeedyk, to the valley to conduct workshops and hands on training on arroyo management. He stresses the philosophy of “Do no harm, keep it simple, get the biggest bang for your buck, and keep it low tech, low risk, and low cost.” In 2008 he held a two-day seminar in April and volunteers completed the arroyo work in October. The project was made possible though funding from the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners Program, with additional equipment donations from Pima County and Sierra Mining and Ranching. According to AVCA Vice President, Mary Miller “These workshops have been very successful. We can see results and are learning to critique and improve our own work… We have brought many groups together to work on the land and experience this working landscape.” 

From its inception, AVCA has worked to bring natural fire back into the landscape, where government policy has been to extinguish lightning-started fires immediately rather than letting them burn. "Fire certainly has a role to play here," says King. AVCA's initial plan pinpointed natural boundaries and roads that firefighters could use as fire breaks while allowing fires to burn. That plan wasn't enacted because of endangered-species concerns, but AVCA persevered, working in cooperation with the Arizona State Land Department, Arizona Game and Fish Commission, Arizona Ecological Service Office, NRCS, USFWS, Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, Pima County Natural Resources Parks and Recreation, and The Nature Conservancy. 

The Altar Valley Fire Management Plan (AVFMP) was completed in early 2009 following nearly three years of development and working with agencies to get clearances. The plan covers roughly 609,900 acres in Pima County and is intended to "improve range and watershed health by reducing invasive and woody species in the Altar Valley Watershed grassland habitats. It would allow natural fire and carefully controlled prescribed burns while also addressing endangered species concerns."Beginning in 2009, the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service will reach out to landowners in the watershed to see who would like to burn each year to begin plans and implementation of the fire plan. 

Challenges/constraints: Dealing with the day-to-day work of an active organization has been a challenge for the all-volunteer AVCA. As with many such groups, volunteer attrition can be a problem, with the bulk of the work often falling on a few members. 

AVCA is trying to expand its partnerships. In 2008 exciting projects and funding possibilities prompted the Alliance to review its organizational structure and Board of Directors. They approved new bylaws that focus the organizations mission on “ leaving the next generation with a healthy, productive watershed, a thriving agricultural community, and rural life enriched by the culture and history of the Altar Valley.”

AVCA's 12-member board of directors consists of individuals who consent to represent ranching and agricultural interests in the valley. It also includes up to three members at large including representatives from the University of Arizona, bee keeping businesses, and a local vineyard. "There are times when there are tensions, but if we can keep our focus on the issue, we can work together to work on that in spite of our tension. That's what we try to keep before us so that we can remain active in what we want to get accomplished," explains King. 

Not all volunteers are AVCA members. "For our fire plan, for the survey for archaeological materials, for our cactus program, people have come and helped us and done various volunteer things. Hunters and other people who come out and hike and picnic and just enjoy this valley will come back and participate," says King.Fundraising is always a challenge. Member ranchers have reached into their own pockets to fund some projects, while other conservation projects haven't been started because of the prohibitive cost. "It's not about a financial reward because there is none," King says. "You don't get paid back for what you put into it because there's not that kind of money in agriculture." 

AVCA does not have paid staff or a web site (although it publishes a semiannual newsletter, The Rainmaker) but in 2007 the group secured an NRCS Technical Service Provider grant. One service provider works with AVCA on restoration projects, grant writing, and developing one-rock dams used to stabilize arroyos. In April 2008, he met with a group of people from about 11 ranches to look at potential dam sites, showing the ranchers what sites would be suitable and explaining why. 

AVCA has been frustrated at times by the intensive regulations associated with endangered species and the misperception by some environmentalists and government employees that the ranchers aren't truly committed to habitat conservation. "We're trying to do improvements and yet we're being treated as if the work we are doing is detrimental to the land and even the species, and yet our species (in the Altar Valley) are thriving," King says. "Everybody is running from a lawsuit. We're going up against people who have been here for a year and a half and they're the experts, and we're these ignorant, manure-kicking illiterates." 

Perhaps the greatest challenge for AVCA, and the Altar Valley itself, is preventing ranches from being sold and subdivided by developers seeking to cash in on Tucson's population boom. Pima County's desert conservation plan notes that "market values exceed what livestock production alone can economically support." Yet AVCA members say they are committed to maintaining their land and their agricultural way of life in the Altar Valley. "I think we'll be working on this issue the rest of my life and maybe the rest of my kids' lives," says Ross Humphreys.


For more information see:

Altar Valley Conservation Alliance

Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan

Altar Valley Fire Plan

Sonoran Desert Ranch Conservation Map

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