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Edited by: John Stewart

The Wildlands Project Comes to Hidalgo County - Part 11

The Wildlands Project: National Wildlife Refuges

by: Judy Keeler

When The Nature Conservancy (TNC) bought the Gray Ranch media coverage stated it was their intent to establish a wildlife refuge. Although TNC does not like to be reminded of this fact, the documents speak clearly.

An Associated Press article, published in the Albuquerque Journal entitled, “Nature Group to Be Middleman for Animas Refuge”, claimed “an international nature group will buy the Gray Ranch and hold it for resale to the federal government for creation of the Animas Mountains National Wildlife Refuge.”

Dated July 4, 1989, the article disclosed that New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman had already requested $9 million from the Department of Interior’s Land and Water Conservation Fund for the purchase. TNC was expected to purchase the ranch and “hold it for resale to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service” for an estimated $18.25 million.

In another Associate Press article, entitled, “Fancy Deals Help Save Wildlife”, several similar purchases by TNC are documented. Included is the story of Shelter Island off the tip of New York’s Long Island. Owned by the Girard family, they wanted a third of the island to become a wildlife preserve. The family-owned realty company also held other properties. Although he family wanted to make a substantial gift of the land, they “also wanted to realize some cash from the holdings that included nine brownstones near Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, warehouse property in Miami, and oil and gas wells.”

“Conservancy experts worked out an elaborate deal. The family sold the realty company to the conservancy for less than the market value, reaping a charity tax deduction. The conservancy then sold off the brownstones, the gas and oil wells and the warehouses and raised the rest of the $12 million it owed the family for the realty company.”

According to the same article, Matagordo Island is another example of how TNC “worked a deal” so the U.S. Fish and Wildlife could obtain a piece of property to “enlarge the agency’s holdings in Texas”.

The Santa Cruz Islands off the coast of California, however, provided a greater challenge for TNC. Home to sheep for over 150 years, the animals would not cooperate with the Navajo sheep herders sent to round them up. Finally the sheep were fenced into a square mile area and TNC had them killed. According to the article, all but 10,000 privately held acres are now a part of the National Park Service’s Santa Cruz Island Preserve.

In an article by John Barbour, “Rescuing the Land: Environmental Groups Use The System To Help Conserve Endangered Property”, published March 18, 1990, the editor notes, “from the California deserts to the coniferous coast of Maine, from the Cascades of Washington to the Florida Everglades, the ranks of environmentalists are swelling and so are their coffers and the lands they control. No longer Don Quixotes tilting at windmills, they are now scientists, businessmen and lawyers, playing a high-stakes game.”

According to this article, up until the Gray Ranch was purchased by TNC, the organization was already taking out of production an average of “1,000 acres a day”. Today the organization averages one land purchase per day in the United States and has acquired more than 12 million acres of land that are organized into more than 1,400 preserves. A quote from Michael Dennis, general counsel for TNC, reveals that “for every scientist we have around here, we probably have an MBA, a tax lawyer and a real estate attorney.”

Barbour also states that the “environmentalists have sharpened their ‘skills’ in the private sector, recycling many of the same dollars to buy new land. They have discovered revolving funds, a war fund that doesn’t have to stay invested. They can plunk down several million dollars until, by prior arrangement, a government agency can repay them. Or they can buy a piece of property deprive it of the potential for commercial development, and resell the land for a lesser cost to what they think is an appropriate buyer.”

A high-stakes game it appears to be. According to Barbour, “TNC acted when it discovered the ranch owners wanted to sell (the Gray Ranch) and there was the threat the land might be broken up and developed.”

In reality the threat of subdivision was minuscule. The Gray Ranch happened to be just another piece of property TNC wanted to transfer to the government. Pablo Brenner (American Breco Corporation), a well-to-do industrialist from Mexico, owned the Gray Ranch prior to TNC purchasing the property in 1990.

Brenner also owned another ranch in southern Arizona, 1983-1985, called the Buenos Aires Ranch. It was sold to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1985 under the authority of the Endangered Species Act. A combination of privately owned land (21,258 acres) and state trust lands (90,199 acres), the state trust lands were acquired by the federal government in a complex land exchange between the State of Arizona, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Wildlife Service.

By 1990 the area was known as the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. With the purchase of two privately owned properties from TNC, which they had purchased with the expectation of selling to the Service, the refuge grew to approximately 117,000 acres.

Having already negotiated several successful deals, TNC did not anticipate any problems establishing the Animas Wildlife Refuge. However, “politics as usual” was changing. During the Reagan administration, cabinet officials were reluctant to place more private lands into federal ownership. This forced the Conservancy to develop a new strategy. After all, TNC is a quick study and does not often repeat its failures.

A quote from Senator Bingaman in the 1990 article indicated the direction TNC would choose for the new millennium, “The Nature Conservancy, an international, private non-profit organization, is committed to helping the federal government acquire the ranch and manage the wildlife refuge.”

Wildlife refuges, national parks, national monuments and other federally owned lands are the vehicles of choice for implementing the Wildlands Project. And the Nature Conservancy, along with other like-minded organizations, will be the new land managers. Given their “expertise” and “collaborative effort” it makes perfect sense.

As we have seen with the CARA bill, and other federally endorsed land acquisition schemes, expect to see more and more land to be systematically taken out of production, placed in national monuments, refuges and parks, as we continue to follow TNC’s agenda into the future. Eventually all the land will be managed for endangered species, biodiversity and “ecosystem health”. If it takes 50 to 100 years, so be it.

As Michael Dennis was eloquently quoted, “When you’re talking about an ecosystem, you could be talking about anything from 5,000 acres to 500 square miles.” A more recent observer noted than “an ecosystem can be as small as your backyard or as large as the globe”. Time is of no consequences.

Next week: The Millennium Conservancy

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