Malpai Borderlands Group

Posted: Sep 3, 2001

"Concerted effort must be made to identify the conservational common ground that unites all of us who love the land, and then to create programs in which we can work together to implement the values we share." (From the Malpai Agenda)

"Our goal is to restore and maintain the natural processes that create and protect a healthy, unfragmented landscape.... Together, we will accomplish this by working to encourage profitable ranching and other traditional livelihoods, which will sustain the open-space nature of our land for generations to come." (Mission Statement of the Malpai Borderlands Group)

Location: The "bootheel" of Arizona and New Mexico on the Mexican border

Objective: Restoring fire as an ecological process, preventing subdivision and enhancing ranching livelihoods, and improving range condition and overall ecological health through science-driven adaptive management.

Participants: Coronado National Forest, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Natural Resource Conservation Service, Hidalgo Soil and Water Conservation District, Whitewater Draw Natural Resource Conservation District, Bureau of Land Management, Arizona State Land Department, University of Arizona's Desert Laboratory, University of New Mexico, Arizona State University, New Mexico State University, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, Arizona Game and Fish Department, The Animas Foundation, The Nature Conservancy.

History: Local ranchers formed the Malpai Borderlands Group (MBG) in 1994 out of concern about the future of public-lands-grazing and the increasing loss and subdivision of private ranchland throughout the Southwest, and out of frustration with federal and state fire suppression policies that contributed to spread of woody shrubs and loss of forage grasses. In addition to ranchers, early participants in the MBG process included the local Forest Service range conservationist and Natural Resources Conservation Service range management specialist, as well as representatives of The Nature Conservancy.

Working on a restoration project
Photo courtesy of Malpai Borderlands Group
The MBG negotiated a memorandum of understanding with nine federal, state and local agencies stating that fire should be restored as a natural process in the borderlands and then preceded to develop an 800,000-acre regional fire plan. The plan identifies areas where fires should be allowed to burn, where they should be suppressed, and where prescribed fires should be set. To address the potential impact of fire on the six endangered and fifteen threatened species that occur in the borderlands region, the MBG is working with the agencies to develop a "programmatic plan "that would allow prescribed fires to be carried out without repeating the time consuming and expensive "consultation" process required under the Endangered Species Act each time. As part of this process and to guide planning and evaluation of other management activities, the MBG established a scientific advisory group. The MBG also originated the concept of the "grassbank®" under which the ranchers' cattle are given access to grass on another ranch (the Grassbank) in exchange for taking conservation action equal to the value of the grass. In the MBG Grassbank, that value was conveying a conservation easement to the Malpai Borderlands Group, which in turn raised money to compensate the owner of the grassbank for its use.

Accomplishments: As the Malpai Agenda proposed, finding common ground and then working collaboratively and in good faith toward common objectives has proved extremely powerful, so have the MBG's core operating principles: the group will never do anything to its neighbors, only with them at their request; and whatever actions the group does take will be "driven by good science, contain a strong conservation ethic, be economically feasible, and be initiated and led by the private sector, with public agencies coming in as our partners rather than with us as their clients." To date, the MBG has succeeded in:
  • Incorporating as a non-profit conservation organization;
  • Implementing three prescribed fires encompassing habitat of three endangered species;
  • Providing grassbank® services to five local ranchers;
  • Securing conservation easements on 75,000 acres of private land;
  • Establishing over 250 ecological monitoring plots and conducting numerous research experiments to assess the interactions of fire, grazing and climate;
  • Carrying out numerous range restoration and erosion control projects.

The MBG is on the verge of implementing a region-wide programmatic fire plan. The financial circumstances of many borderlands ranchers remain precarious given fluctuations in the cattle market and the difficulty of developing viable niche marketing and value-added strategies due to the borderlands' remoteness from processing facilities and potential markets. Despite continuing efforts to restore the productivity of the borderlands range, ongoing climate change could prove to be a critical and intractable factor in the spread of woody shrubs and the loss of forage grasses. Finally, the cost of these efforts is significant. The MBG's annual operating budget is currently $142,000. The estimated cost of land protection efforts to ensure the ecological integrity of the borderlands region is estimated at $15 million.

For more information see:

Malpai Borderlands Group Homepage

NPR Interview with Ranchers
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