Diablo Trust

Posted: Mar 1, 2005
Written by: 
Brendan Smith

Northern Arizona, approximately 15 miles southeast of Flagstaff between Mormon Lake and Winslow

Objective: According to its goal statement, "The purpose of the Diablo Trust is to maintain Diablo Trust ranches as long-term, economically viable enterprises managed in harmony with the natural environment and the broader community."

Participants: Bar T Bar Ranch, Flying M Ranch, Coconino National Forest, Arizona Game and Fish Department, Northern Arizona University, Arizona Antelope Foundation, Arizona Association for Environmental Education, Arizona Farm Bureau, Arizona State Land Department, Artists' Coalition of Flagstaff, Building Collaborative Communities, Center for Sustainable Environments, city of Flagstaff, Coconino County, EcoResults, Malpai Borderlands Group, Merriam-Powell Center for Environmental Research, Quivira Coalition, University of Arizona and other environmentalists, ranchers and artists.

History: Since the late 1800s, two ranching families, the Prossers and the Metzgers, have owned the Bar T Bar Ranch and Flying M Ranch for generations. Together, the two ranches cover 426,000 acres of private, state and U.S. Forest Service land, including large sections of the Coconino National Forest. At an elevation of 7,500 feet, ponderosa pine forests descend into dense stands of piñon and juniper, opening into meadows and wetlands used by cattle, elk, deer and pronghorn antelope. The Diablo Canyon, for which the Diablo Trust is named, cuts between the ranches.

The Bar T Bar and Flying M ranches have survived drought, fluctuating beef prices, competition from imported and feedlot beef, criticism from environmentalists, and other pressures that forced many family ranches to sell out, often for lucrative deals to develop new subdivisions. In the 1980s, the two ranches implemented novel grazing rotation measures, but large herds of elk devoured the best spring grazing land, and the ranchers received little help in managing the elk population from state or federal land managers. The ranchers "felt punished for doing the right thing," says Norm Lowe, a range conservation consultant and president of the Diablo Trust.

The Diablo Trust ranches also were confronted with the increasing complexity of environmental reviews for grazing permits on state and federal land. "It was a challenge trying to maintain a viable ranching interest out here in the West while receiving pressure from regulatory burdens from the agencies as well as environmental pressures," says Bob Prosser, who owns Bar T Bar Ranch with his wife, Judy. "We're somewhat challenged with how to move the ranch from one generation to the next without having to sell the darned thing."

To confront these challenges, the Prossers and Jack and Mandy Metzger, owners of the Flying M Ranch, called together local environmentalists, state and federal land managers, scientists and others interested in a collaborative approach to protecting the land while still running a viable ranching operation. Approximately 80 people attended the first meeting of the Diablo Trust in 1993, triggering confrontations between ranchers and environmentalists. "There was lots of fist pounding and yelling at those first meetings," says Mandy Metzger, vice-president of the Diablo Trust. "The big thing was the building of trust. Both sides have learned from each other, no question." Trust members found they had many of the same goals, despite their different backgrounds. "Ninety percent of what the ranchers want is what the environmentalists want: healthy habitat and healthy land," Lowe says.

In 1998, the Diablo Trust formed as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Norm Wallen, a Sierra Club activist and former Flagstaff city councilor who serves as secretary of the Diablo Trust, is convinced cattle benefit the land by providing manure and some disturbance to till the soil to encourage grass growth. "There are many people who believe you take the cows off, and the land will just heal itself. I think that is straight bullshit in many areas of the Southwest," he says. "I'm convinced the land would deteriorate if the ranchers went out of business."

 Installing wildlife-friendly fences
Photo courtesy of the Diablo Trust
Accomplishments: The Diablo Trust has worked on the ground with several projects at the two ranches. Trust members have replaced the bottom strand of barbed wire with smooth wire on many fences to allow antelope to pass unharmed. During extreme droughts in 1996 and 2002, ranchers and volunteers hauled more than 1 million gallons of water to support wildlife, with the ranches agreeing to move most of their livestock to Oklahoma in 2002 because of the extreme conditions. "It was a huge expense, and it was a big decision. I think it tested everybody's mettle," Mandy Metzger says. The Diablo Trust has developed a wildlife drought relief plan with the Arizona Game and Fish Department and has created a rangeland management plan and inventory of riparian areas, including best management practices for livestock grazing to protect clean water.

The Diablo Trust has thinned almost 5,000 acres of dense juniper and piñon stands that have overgrown meadows and choked out grazing land. Bob Prosser says an additional 4,600 acres are now being thinned, with the downed trees used to prevent erosion and for flood control. The trust has welcomed research projects by Northern Arizona University and Prescott College on various grazing management techniques. One study conducted by Thomas Sisk, associate professor of ecology at NAU, found defoliation by cattle actually increased the aboveground growth of some grass species. Sisk says the Diablo Trust ranches are different from most ranches in "their true interest in research and learning."

The Diablo Trust has also worked on outreach projects with students, scientists and artists. For the past two years, the Diablo Trust has brought artists to the ranches to create artwork for "Reflections of the Land: Diablo Trust Forum for the Arts," with an exhibition at the NAU Art Museum. In 1997, the trust developed a field-trip unit for students from sixth to 12th grade with a skit and slide show by trust members, followed by an all-day field trip to the Flying M Ranch. The trust also created a 45-minute educational video on rangeland issues, which was mailed to all middle and high schools in the Flagstaff school district.

The Diablo Trust is working to reshape rural planning in Arizona. Mandy Metzger and other trust members lobbied for the passage of a state law allowing the creation of rural planning areas. In March 2003, the Coconino County Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution establishing the Diablo Canyon Rural Planning Area, the first of its kind in Arizona. The trust is partnering with the county to develop a rural master plan for privately owned lands on the two ranches. "We're trying to do a broad toolbox of ideas that can be used as a pilot for other areas as well," Metzger says. The rural planning area will include the possible sale of conservation easements to prohibit development on certain ranch parcels. Planning for low-impact housing will conserve key environmental areas, but housing development will be a last resort for the ranches, Metzger says.

Challenges/constraints: The Diablo Trust has had limited success in fundraising to cover its operational expenses. With one part-time employee, the trust operated in 2004 on a $28,000 budget, with approximately 40 percent from grants, 30 percent from the ranches and 30 percent from general contributions, says Hadassah Holland, administrative and program manager. The trust doesn't want to limit membership, so it doesn't charge dues. Other challenges include the time-consuming nature of collaborative meetings and the lack of clear leadership when officer titles don't mean anything because the group relies on consensus for decision-making.

 Pronghorn on the Bar T Bar Ranch
Photo courtesy of the Diablo Trust
In 1998, the Diablo Trust was designated a National Reinventing Government Laboratory. Hopes that the designation would ease some federal regulations and help move trust projects forward failed to materialize after the change in federal administration in 2001, Metzger says. During that year, the Arizona Wildlife Federation sued the Coconino National Forest, claiming the U.S. Forest Service wasn't following federal law or its own forest plan in providing adequate protection of wetlands and habitat for pronghorn antelope, including some areas used by the Diablo Trust ranches. In March 2004, a U.S. district judge approved a settlement that requires the Coconino National Forest to protect the wetlands according to its forest management plan and abide by time frames set under the National Environmental Policy Act. Even though the Diablo Trust created a comprehensive rangeland management plan, the approval of new 10-year federal grazing permits for both ranches is years behind schedule. Environmental impact statements for the grazing allotments are being completed, with a decision on the permits expected by April 2005, says Carol Boyd, stewardship staff officer with the Coconino National Forest.

Bob Prosser says the Bar T Bar Ranch is still struggling financially and is running less than 1,500 head of cattle, 40 percent of its herd from two decades ago. Attempts to reimburse Diablo Trust ranchers for maintaining open space still haven't materialized, although the rural planning initiatives offer some hope. "No matter how you cut that economic cake, the cost of production continues to go up. We're trying to pay more with less," Prosser says. "My nature is to be pessimistic, but I do think we've made enough progress in all this that the outcome will be good."

For more information see:

Diablo Trust's  web site
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