Local Rancher Working to Protect and Restore Large Sky Islands Grassland Ranch

The Trust for Public Land announced today that 6,043 acres of Cienega Ranch has been protected through the purchase of a conservation easement. The land will conserve high-quality native grasslands and critical wildlife habitat, while keeping the land as a working cattle ranch. The protected land is immediately adjacent to important federal lands, the Fort Bowie National Historic Site owned by the National Park Service and the Bowie Mountain Scenic Area of Critical Environmental Concern owned by The Bureau of Land Management.

“We are devoting a significant amount of our work in Arizona to protect and conserve the Sky Island grasslands for the future. Once you have seen this incredible landscape, you know why it’s important to help ranchers like Josiah Austin to protect and restore it,” said Michael Patrick, Arizona project manager for The Trust for Public Land. “This is a great partnership between The Trust for Public Land, Josiah Austin, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust and the New Mexico Land Conservancy to ensure a beautiful and diverse area will be here beyond our lifetimes to benefit the land and future generations of wildlife and people in perpetuity.”

Cienega Ranch lies in the Southern Sulphur Springs Valley just northwest of the Chiricahua Mountains, which form the eastern boundary of the valley and are the largest of the “Sky Island” mountain ranges in the United States. The ranch is also next to the Dos Cabezas Mountains, where a new jaguar was photographed last November by a BLM remote trail camera. The Southern Suphur Springs Valley contains the Willcox Playa, located near the ranch and the site for the hugely popular annual “Wings over Willcox” birding and nature festival, and is the main destination for the approximately 30,000 Sandhill Cranes that winter in Arizona.

The conservation easement on the ranch was purchased from Josiah Austin, who is committed to long-term land protection and restoration efforts on this ranch and across the landscape, using funds from the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). Another important funder in this effort was the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. The Charitable Trust’s funds were instrumental in providing a local source of matching funds needed to apply for and secure the federal funds. The funding will be used to place a perpetual conservation easement on the property, which means Mr. Austin will continue to own and work the land, but it will never be subdivided or fragmented.

“The significance of Mr. Austin’s commitment to ensuring this portion of the Sky Islands remains contiguous and un-fragmented in perpetuity cannot be overstated. We are grateful that he is making such a forward-thinking pledge, which will restore and protect these critical grasslands and support the myriad wildlife species that depend on them,” said Gene D’Adamo, president and CEO of Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. “We appreciate the Trust for Public Land’s leadership role in bringing everyone together to secure this extraordinary achievement for the future of this landscape.”

The Trust for Public Land has partnered with the New Mexico Land Conservancy, an experienced land trust that holds 75 easements over 160,000 acres in New Mexico and Arizona. “Working on wildlife and ranchland conservation in southeast Arizona was a logical extension of the work we had already been doing for years in southwest New Mexico,” said Scott Wilber, Executive Director of the New Mexico Land Conservancy. “We have successfully partnered with The Trust for Public Land in the past and were thrilled to have the opportunity to work with them again on this exciting, collaborative land conservation project along the west flank of the Chiricahuas.”

“This whole valley contains some spectacular grassland that is home for birds, bats, jaguar, deer and, of course, cattle”, says Josiah Austin, owner of Cienega Ranch. “I hope people understand that keeping land like this in ranching is one of the best options for our society to keep those open spaces and protect the wildlife that rely on this country. It is really important to me that Cienega Ranch stays wild and undeveloped in the future, and I am happy to have placed this conservation easement on the land. I would like to thank all the amazing partners that have helped me over the years with projects to restore these grasslands, help with wildlife projects, and now permanently protect the ranch.”

The landowner intends to reinvest the funds from the sale of the conservation easement in additional land protection and restoration efforts. Part of the proceeds are being used to acquire eight 40-acre “ranchette” lots that were previously subdivided and are adjacent to the ranch and a 360-acre property located less than a mile from Fort Bowie National Historic Site. Mr. Austin is also working on multiple land restoration and wildlife projects across the ranch, including a project with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on efforts to restore the watershed and bring back cienegas and wetlands in Cienega Canyon.

Mr. Austin has been working to conserve and restore land in this valley for decades. On the nearby El Coronado Ranch in Turkey Creek Canyon of the Chiricahua Mountains, the successful techniques developed by Mr. Austin and Anna Valer Clark to reduce erosion and restore the vegetation, soils and creek – through the building of gabions and tricheras across the landscape -are being replicated elsewhere in southeast Arizona as a model for restoration of lands in the arid Southwest. His prior work with government partners and organizations like University of Arizona and National Wild Turkey Federation has also included the reintroduction of the Gould’s turkey to the Chiricahua Mountains and the protection on the El Coronado Ranch of several federally-listed fish. On another large grassland ranch, the 14,000-acre Bar Boot Ranch located between the Chiricahua Mountains and the Swisshelm Mountains, he had previously sold a conservation easement to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an addition to the nearby Leslie Canyon National Wildlife Refuge. He has also been very involved in scientific research on these ranches and providing environmental education initiatives for youth.

“Cienega Ranch, at the foot of the Chiricahua Mountains in my district, boasts significant native grassland—one of Arizona’s most valuable natural resources. That’s why I have called to strengthen its conservation and worked to secure funding to protect it,” said Congresswoman McSally, R-AZ2. “I am proud to partner with The Trust for Public Land and others to secure an easement on this important grassland ranch and I appreciate the support of NRCS through its Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. The protection of these 6,043 acres is an important win for Arizona.”

In July 2016, Congresswoman McSally sent a letter to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation calling for them to support the Cienega Grasslands Ranch in their Acres for America Program for Protection.

The ACEP funds are provided by NRCS through the Farm Bill, passed by Congress in 2014. This program assists private landowners to conserve agricultural lands across the country.

“NRCS is pleased that our partnership with the Trust for Public Land has allowed this important grassland to be preserved for both a conservation benefit and to maintain a working ranch into the future,” says Keisha Tatem, AZ-NRCS State Conservationist.

The Trust for Public Land’s mission is to create parks and protect land for people, ensuring healthy, livable communities for generations to come. Millions of people live within a ten-minute walk of a Trust for Public Land park, garden, or natural area, and millions more visit these sites every year. To share your story or learn more, visit www.tpl.org.

The Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust seeks to help people in need, especially women, children and families; to protect animals and nature; and to enrich community life primarily in metropolitan Phoenix and Indianapolis. The Trust has awarded more than $283 million in grants and student scholarships since its inception in 1997.