The Quivira Coalition newsletter,
June 2004, Vol. 6, No. 4

"Making Conservation Pay"

Courtney White, Executive Director
Quivira Coalition, Santa Fe, New Mexico


Jim Crosswhite and the EC Bar Ranch, Nutrioso, AZ

"What we are trying to do here is demonstrate how the integration of conservation and sustainable agricultural practices can improve ranching economics, water quality, and wildlife habitat while meeting public policy objectives." - Jim Crosswhite, quoted in the White Mountain Independent, September 5, 2000

 

 

It is not a coincidence that for ten years Jim Crosswhite ran circles around the Himalaya Mountains - literally. To say he enjoys a challenge, usually doing what others choose not to do is like saying a fish enjoys water, or a cow enjoys grass. After successful careers as a trader on the Chicago Board of Trade, adventure travel operator, and organizer of high-altitude endurance trials, it is little wonder that after "retiring" to a mountain meadow near Springerville, Arizona, Jim would try to cut the Gordian knot of ranch economics in the American West. He hit upon something nobody in the area wanted to do: combine conservation practices with ranching economics.

He may very well have succeeded.

When Jim purchased the 300-acre EC Bar Ranch in 1996 he knew it was in trouble. Rabbitbrush and sumac infested the uplands; blue gramma, the predominate native grass, yielded only three hundred pounds of production per acre; the riparian area was rated "non-functional" due to raw, exposed streambanks; there were no cross fences, livestock drinkers, elk were a problem, and the ranch's infrastructure was in disrepair. Moreover, Jim soon learned that Nutrioso Creek is native habitat for a federally listed threatened fish species - the Little Colorado River spinedace (Lepidomeda vittata).

Things became even more "challenging" in 2000 when the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) completed the Nutrioso Creek TMDL for Turbidity. This report identified seven out of 27 miles of Nutrioso Creek, including Jim's 3 mile stretch, as exceeding Total Daily Maximum Load standards for clean water due to exposed streambanks aggravated by historical activity by livestock and elk.. Under the federal Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) coordinates with state agencies in an effort to reduce non-point source pollution, such as excessive levels of water-borne sediment, or turbidity, which reduces water quality to the detriment of wildlife and human populations. Jim's ranch was high on the list for action.

In other words, there was no shortage of challenges confronting Jim on the EC Bar Ranch because without a change in ranch management practices to improve water quality and aquatic habitat, Jim felt there was a risk of losing water and property rights

Making It Work

This is where the story, however, takes an unusual turn. Rather than get mad, get even, or give up, Jim decided to cooperate with the agencies. "When a Game and Fish guy came to our valley," said Jim, by way of an example, "one of my neighbors pulled out his gun and ran him off. But after realizing the benefits of partnering with agencies to improve my property, I invited him to talk"

To his surprise, Jim liked what he heard. So, rather than struggle against the regulations, Jim took a long look at the list of recommendations in the species recovery plan and TMDL report. Some were already being implemented through a comprehensive Conservation Plan prepared by the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) in 1997. He decided to give the rest of them a try, plus a few extra. "I didn't feel like I was giving in," said Jim. "They had good workable ideas. And they wanted to help. In fact, I haven't met a government employee that I couldn't work with. Agencies have different priorities, e.g. ADEQ focuses on water quality improvements, Game & Fish Deparment focuses on wildlife improvements, while I focus on ranching economics. All three approaches are not only compatible, but essential to success in today's environment."

Jim swung into action with the energy and determination of a long-distance runner. Here is a short list of the most successful Best Management Practices (BMPs) that Jim has implemented on the EC Bar so far:

Pasture improvements.. Jim built elk proof fence, riparian and buffer strip fencing to create 15 separate pastures for rotational grazing. He limits grazing in riparian and buffer pastures to the dormant season only, with careful monitoring. Rabbitbrush has been controlled and eradicated by mowing, fire, and root plowing, followed by overseeding with native cool-season grasses. Erosion has been reduced, habitat improved, and annual livestock forage production has increased from 300 lbs/acre in 1996 to 4,000 lbs/acre in riparian pastures and 2,000 lbs/acre in irrigated upland pastures.
Riparian restoration. After hearing Bill Zeedyk speak at a Quivira meeting about the benefits of induced meandering and stream stabilization structures, Jim hired Bill to develop a riparian restoration plan. Over 20 riffle weirs, 10 post vanes, and 80,000 willows have been used to address TMDL and habitat concerns. The objective is to slow water down so sediment will naturally filter out to improve turbidity, protect streambanks from erosion, increase aquatic and wildlife habitat, while raising the water table. This process has resulted in more forage production with less irrigation.
Improved irrigation. Jim installed off-channel water wells with drinkers for daily waterings by livestock and wildlife. The wells are also used to supplement surface water used for irrigation. A 250,000 gallon water storage tank, 2,000 gpm diesel powered water pump, 20,000 feet of above ground pipe, and 100 "big gun" sprinklers have replaced an earth ditch system wasting 100 million gallons of water annually due to seepage and evaporation. About half the sprinklers are located along two miles riparian corridor to help establish and maintain riparian vegetation as surface flows dry up during drought conditions.

Riparian fencing to keep livestock out of the riparian zone. It has an electric top-wire to discourage elk from jumping in. The gates allow the livestock to use the area in the dormant season. Willow planting in April 2003. Three thousand willows were planted to stabilize the streambanks. (All photos with this article are courtesy of Jim Crosswhite, unless otherwise indicated.)

Post vanes designed by Bill Zeedyk were placed on Nutrioso Creek to divert water from eroding banks earlier this year.

Judging from the numerous tours, lectures, and articles he has posted on his web site (www.ECBarRanch.com), Jim has enjoyed significant success with his restoration work. In June, 2002, for instance, he hosted Arizona Governor Jane Hull and other dignitaries in a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Clean Water Act. The Director of ADEQ was quoted in a press release as saying the "EC Bar's achievements serve as an excellent example of the power of environmental stewardship on private land."

To Jim, however, the best indicator of his success didn't involve a press release. It happened in late 2003, when the ADEQ decided to relocate the "reference reach" for 27 miles of Nutrioso Creek from a site 10 miles downstream, to "Reach 3" on the EC Bar Ranch. This is significant because in 1996, "Reach 3" was officially rated as "nonfunctional" by hydrologists. "Now it's a beautiful, properly functioning E-type channel, producing over 4,000 lbs/acre," said Jim, referring to the Rosgen system of stream classification.

"While I didn't say anything to them at the time, I consider this to be about the highest award I may ever receive for riparian restoration, and it means a great deal to me. From a practical perspective, after travelling to more than 70 countries and around the world for 30 years, walking down the creek on a summers evening with my wife and old dog is as good as it gets."

Making It Pay

The other unusual element to the EC Bar story is how Jim paid for all this restoration work: he learned to cooperate with public agencies to meet public policy objectives while improving his own ranching economics. "My philosophy is a simple one," said Jim. "When a government agency produces a report that identifies a problem affecting my property and recommends solutions, then I want to participate in any grant program they may offer, including matching with my own funds. As a private landowner, I can learn about issues, cooperate with agencies, and help resolve water quality and habitat concerns, while improving ranching economics. I also like to share information with other farmers and ranchers through my website, films, and group tours of projects." So far, Jim has written over 20 grant proposals, with about 90% approval rate. About $1.3 million in projects have been completed on the EC Bar Ranch, with Jim matching 50% of public funds. Recently, Jim was awarded an ADEQ grant to plant 50,000 willows on the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest downstream to improve water quality to help meet turbidity standards.

Whatever answers eventually develop, Jim likes to emphasize one central point: "conservation improves profits". "I've more than doubled the number of animal units per acre by improving water quality through best management practices," said Jim, matter-of-factly. "More importantly, all the water quality and habitat improvement projects I've done have increased my property values, no question about it," he said. It's all about incentives, Jim believes. "These days, society would rather pay me to grow grass, protect fish and raise willows rather than just cows," he said. "If that's the market, then I'll deliver conservation practices and cows." Over the long run, Jim believes that protecting the improvements with a conservation easement that restricts future property development on part of the EC Bar Ranch is the best approach in his situation.

Maybe this philosophy has some merit because last Thanksgiving Day, Jim suffered a sudden massive blood clot in this right leg that moved to his lungs, stopping his heart. "I prayed to finish my riparian restoration projects, be with my dog when he eventually dies, and see my wife again," Jim said. "As the first person in history to ever pray to finish riparian restoration, I guess it must have been important because after a few months, I am back to normal." The only medical explanation offered by Jim's doctors is that a "miracle" occurred that restarted his heart, prevented damage, and allowed an exceptionally rapid recovery. Jim says "I am grateful for a second chance. I work faster and on more projects now."

Jim's work at the EC Bar was included in a 45 minute film entitled Keeping our Waters Clean, which aired on CNBC December 8, 2001.

Making The Steps.

Jim has some suggestions for participating with state and federal agencies, especially for those private landowners with TMDL or species recovery plans available.

"First, ask the local NRCS Conservationist to help develop a comprehensive conservation plan on your farm or ranch. If Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) funds are insufficient to meet the objectives, use the Plan as a guide to apply to other agency grant programs."

"Second, focus on the highest and best assets on your property. Since we are in a long term drought, perhaps 40 years or longer, the 'old ways' experienced over the last 30 years may not work very well. If you own a riparian zone, concentrate on restoring and protecting it as the most valuable asset. The most public funding is available for riparian restoration."

"Third, learn what public programs are available to improve your assets. Even when a match is involved, it can be to your advantage to use grant funding rather than borrow money at the bank. There are favorable tax treatments for conservation projects leading to expectations of improved ranching profits."

"Fourth, spend bad weather days inside writing grants, which is an excellent way to learn how practices work from both the perspective of an agency focus, like water quality improvements to reduce turbidity, and your own objectives to improve operational profits. Lead times to complete a grant application, receive an award, and implement practices can take years, so try to have as many different projects underway as possible so there is always something coming along. This is how any successful business operates."

"Finally, create a website where progress on various projects can be documented. Eventually, this outreach effort becomes an asset when writing grants, communicating with others, and developing new ideas. Keeping the website updated is like taking baby steps that can eventually leave a big footprint. I recently created a 20 minute film for use by the ADEQ at grant workshops all across Arizona that describes water quality improvement projects using information from my website."

For those interested in learning more about projects on the EC Bar Ranch, visit Jim's website at www.ecbarranch.com.

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