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Published in March/April 2001 issue

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Conservation Pays in Arizona

Riparian restoration improves environment & profit

By Steve Werblow

When Jim Crosswhite bought the 275-acre EC Bar Ranch near Nutrioso, Ariz. in 1996, he was bucking a lot of trends. Over-grazing and loss of range to sage-like rabbitbrush left pastures that could only support 50 head of cattle – not enough to make a living on. Federal grazing permits were becoming increasingly restrictive, squeezing many local ranchers out of business. And Nutrioso Creek, which runs right through the center of the spread, was home to a threatened species of minnow and had earned a place on Arizona’s list of impaired waterways.

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It was the kind of situation that would wake most ranchers up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. Crosswhite dreamed about the possibilities.

To Crosswhite’s way of thinking, the species recovery plan for the Little Colorado River spinedace set a concrete management goal. The Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) report written for the creek by the Arizona Department of Environ-mental Quality – completed last summer – provided a road map for conservation. And state and federal agencies were eager to provide expert advice and cost-share funds for people who were willing to meet those goals and follow those maps.

The successes of Jim Crosswhite at his Arizona ranch exemplify the Core 4 Conservation philosophy of balancing profitability with environmental stewardship.

Crosswhite has spent the past two years implementing restoration practices. Today, he sees a creek with reaches meeting designated uses, streambanks stabilized and efficiently irrigated, and pastures reclaimed from rabbitbrush and seeded to native grasses. With most projects completed or well underway, about $1,000 per acre – half from Crosswhite’s pocket and half from state and federal grants – has been invested in conservation practices on the ranch. He’s even bought another mile of riparian area and is working to restore it.

Crosswhite has built his operation on the philosophy that defines Core 4 Conservation – integrating the stewardship of land and water resources with profitable management.

"I’ve more than doubled the number of animal units I can operate per acre," he says. "By improving water quality through best management practices, I am enhancing habitat for the spinedace and other wildlife while improving ranch economics. If this process leads to reductions in turbidity to meet TMDL standards, the creek will be removed from the impaired waters list. Water and property rights for all land-owners in the Nutrioso watershed will be improved. Everyone wins."

Crosswhite adds that keeping ranchers on the land by helping them implement environmental protection strategies helps government agencies and environmental groups achieve ambitious resource preservation goals. Keeping full-scale farming and ranching sustainable is far more effective – and more easily accomplished – than trying to convince dozens of small land-owners along a creek to safeguard their frontage, he notes.

Fence Me In

Crosswhite fenced off the riparian areas along the creek to protect the eroding streambanks from cattle and elk during critical vegetative growth periods. Riparian fencing and off-channel water supplies enable him to restrict access to creekside pastures to the dormant season. Meanwhile, cross-fencing allows livestock rotation in upland pastures while riparian vegetation is taking hold.

Though many ranchers cringe at the idea of fencing riparian zones, Crosswhite says they may be missing the point. "It’s not like, ‘fencing will take away my land,’" he says. "You fence it to grow more grass, which livestock can graze in the wintertime." Viewing it that way explains how restoring the riparian corridor improves the environment and economics of the ranch, he notes.

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Upland pastures have been reclaimed from rabbitbrush, which had choked out grass and left bare ground susceptible to erosion. Along the creek, native grasses and willows are but-tressed by stabilization structures in some key areas, holding the banks in place and filtering out sediment washing toward the stream.

The pastures and new creekside vegetation are watered by traveling gun sprinklers. They operate more efficiently than the flood irrigation they replaced, and they’re less apt to erode soil into the channel.

Dorjee, resident Australian shepherd on EC Bar Ranch, gazes over a riparian fence that protects habitat for endangered minnows and allows vegetation to thrive during the growing season.

A concrete water control structure at each of his two headgates filters irrigation water and prevents fish from entering the ditch system that serves Crosswhite and four neighbors downstream. To prevent the loss of 100 million gallons of water each year to evaporation and seepage – "a significant amount of water that’s not doing anybody any good" – Crosswhite placed pipe in his earthen ditches.

Part of Crosswhite’s irrigation water flows into a 250,000-gallon water tank salvaged from a nearby sawmill. The tank allows him to collect water slowly, leaving more water in stream for habitat during dry times while continuing to supply his sprinkler irrigation guns.

Rethinking Ranching

Crosswhite’s area has a long history of cow-calf operations, which evolved hand-in-hand with grazing allotments on vast tracts of federal land in the region. But grazing leases have been restricted drastically over the past several years, forcing ranchers to maintain their cattle on small, private spreads or forcing them out of business. Crosswhite points out that most local ranches can’t support the 200 to 250 cows necessary to yield enough calves to stay in business. And in a drought, hanging onto a breeding herd can severely overuse small pastures and run up astronomical feed bills.

Crosswhite took a different tack. While many neighboring cattlemen are hoping to fatten calves, he spends the summer growing grass, even baling it as hay where it yields enough. In September, when cattle prices are traditionally low because most people are selling before winter, he buys as many 400-pound stocker cattle as his forage will support for a few months – as many as 300 in a good year, he projects. He sells them between January and March, picking up the proceeds of 200 pounds or so of weight gain plus the benefits of traditionally stronger winter market prices. Meanwhile, he’s not incurring the labor and expense associated with breeding, calving, losses and year-round herd maintenance.

Better Stream for a Better Future

During the blistering drought of 2000, the reaches of Nutrioso Creek on Crosswhite’s ranch featured deep pools and running water, while other stretches above and below his spread had dried up. "Grass can’t grow, water quality can’t improve and spinedace can’t live without water," he says. "But if these same practices are applied to more of the riparian corridor, the whole thing is going to become stable habitat and assure a supply of dormant-season forage." According to Crosswhite’s plan, the spinedace can recover, Nutrioso Creek can be delisted, water rights won’t get yanked to support an endangered species, his grass will grow, and he’ll be able to fatten more cows on the yields.

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Plain and simple, conservation is survival for Crosswhite. He’s found success with the Core 4 Conservation approach. "The private property had to become more productive or I’d just go out of business," he says. "To me, implementing conservation practices was just the most logical thing to do."

Steve Werblow is a free-lance writer based in Ashland, Oregon.

In the shadow of Arizona’s White Mountains, the EC Bar Ranch has quickly become a model of Core 4 Conservation practices.

Web Master

Jim Crosswhite is not secretive about the details of the grants he’s received from state and federal agencies to help restore Nutrioso Creek, which runs through his ranch near Nutrioso, Ariz. In fact, he’s put the grant proposals up on the web for the whole world to see, along with detailed descriptions of each of the dozens of conservation practices he’s tackled on the EC Bar Ranch.

"Just use the practices that apply and write your own grant," he invites fellow farmers and ranchers. "I hope my website information can help more rural landowners meet their own goals and objectives."