Ranchers blindsided by Trump’s border wall

They built a coalition to protect open space. Now, they’re up against the country’s largest construction project.


Jessica Kutz, High Country News (CO)   

Feb. 7, 2020


Since 1994, the Malpai Borderlands Group, a coalition of ranchers, has worked to steward approximately 800,000 acres of rangeland in southern Arizona and New Mexico. The group started with the idea that if its members — ranchers from multiple generations who worked the land — could come together to manage the landscape with other stakeholders, then broader regional decisions could be made with their input.


They have been lauded as a model of collaboration for their work with environmental groups, scientists, nonprofits and federal and state land managers, with the goal of using ranching as a tool for conservation while safeguarding the land’s ecological importance. And for the past two decades, this approach to finding common ground has worked. What was once a tense relationship between ranchers and environmentalists became a strong partnership in the Borderlands.


Ranchers have worked to restore the watershed through a series of small rock structures that slow water runoff during heavy rains, recharging groundwater. A cattle-pond enhancement project aided the threatened Chiricahua leopard frog. The Malpai group has received money from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal agency, to enhance water sources for both the ranchers’ cattle and the wildlife that cross through their land. The group's work has helped inform regional fire-management decisions. Approximately 86,000 acres of land have been protected through conservation easements, maintaining ecological connectivity in a region that both ranchers and environmentalists feared would be fragmented by subdivisions.


But with three of their ranches located along the U.S. Mexico border near the San Bernardino Wildlife Refuge, there was one development the group’s collaborative efforts couldn’t stop: Trump’s border wall.


In January, as the 30-foot bollard wall was being erected just a few hours away — carving up wildlife habitat, cutting off water sources for animals like jaguars, javelina and mountain lions, and cordoning off open space between the United States and Mexico — the Malpai Borderlands Group gathered for its annual Science Conference in the sparsely populated town of Rodeo, New Mexico.


Attendees listened to experts talk about things like drought monitoring, invasive grasses and wildlife activity. In his opening remarks, Myles Traphagen, the group’s science coordinator, set the tone for the event. He talked about the various geographies that collide here: the Sierra Madre from the south and the Rocky Mountains from the north, the Chihuahuan Desert from the east, the Sonoran Desert from the west and the Great Plains. With the border wall on his mind, he told the crowd of ranchers, land managers and scientists: “We have some serious threats facing us right now, which could potentially alter that long-term evolutionary history.”


In attendance was Bill McDonald, the former executive director and founding member of the Malpai Borderlands Group. He was wearing a red long-sleeved shirt, suspenders and a white wide-brimmed hat. A fifth-generation cattle rancher, he won the prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 1998 for his work in land conservation.


When asked about his thoughts on the border wall, he told me he feels betrayed by the government...