Making Landowners An Offer They Can’t Refuse

By Scott Shalaway
WILDLIFE agencies and organizations solve problems by manipulating habitat, animal populations and people.

For example, we manage endangered species by providing and protecting habitat. If we could protect sufficient habitat for all species, wildlife conservation would be easy.

But in the real world, people and wildlife compete for habitat. We farm land, cut forests, mine minerals, dam rivers and develop land for housing, industry and tourism. Sometimes these actions take place in prime wildlife habitat. It is the job of conservationists to minimize these conflicts, and too often we fail.

If we could refrain from developing coastal zones and flood plains, damage from storms like Katrina would be minimal. If we avoided fire prone areas, disasters such as the recent southern California fires would not occur. But for a variety of reasons, we choose to develop disaster prone areas. At some point, land planners need to look to the future and consider the consequences of their actions.

A story in the November-December 2007 issue of “BirdWatcher’s Digest” got me thinking about land development. Kenn Kaufmann writes of a threat to Madera Canyon in southern Arizona. Madera Canyon is known to birders far and wide as a place to see specialty species such as Elegant Trogans, Elf Owls, Painted Redstarts and 15 species of hummingbirds.

Many Mexican species stray north into the zone. I attended graduate school in Arizona, so I know the area fairly well. It remains high on my list of favorite birding destinations.

Madera Canyon, part of the Coronado National Forest, is nestled in the northern slopes of the Santa Rita Mountains. These mountains, like others in southern Arizona, rise high above the desert floor to form lush, isolated “islands” of ecological wonder. Madera Canyon is one of many such canyons found among these desert sky islands, but it’s the most studied and most accessible. It is a priceless resource.

Kaufman’s article focuses on a threat to the mouth of Madera Canyon. The approach traverses desert grasslands, home to Cassin’s, Boteri’s and Rufous-winged Sparrows. Just a mile from the canyon, 1,189 privately owned acres of desert grassland is being pursued by a developer who wants to build a 280-unit housing development.

Putting aside the “wisdom” of placing a housing project in the midst of a fire-prone desert grassland (in light of the recent California fires), these grasslands are an integral part of the entire landscape and warrant protection. But no one would deny the land owner the right to sell his private property for top dollar. That is the reward for acquiring it and protecting it.

What we need for land owners is an alternative to selling out to commercial interests. What we need are “godfathers of conservation”–wealthy individuals who can make the owner of quality habitat “an offer he can’t refuse.” These godfathers would be individuals who see the value of protecting critical habitats in perpetuity. In return, these benefactors would be revered as heroes by the conservation communities they help, and enjoy the satisfaction of making a difference.

Years ago, this suggestion might have seemed naive, but not today. In 2005, reported that there were more than eight million millionaires in the U.S. And according to, this year for the first time, the 400 richest people in America are all billionaires.

Public funds to purchase critical habitat are possible, but typically the financial wheels at governmental agencies turn slowly. For example, Pima County, AZ, might be persuaded to buy the parcel of desert grasslands Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords said on Oct. 13 that she was prepared to introduce legislation that would extend the boundary of the Coronado National Forest to include these desert grasslands.

But private transactions are easier. All that’s required are willing sellers and cash. I can’t imagine a willing seller who would prefer seeing a piece of property turned into a housing or industrial development if they could get the same price to preserve the land in its natural state in perpetuity.

A corps of “godfathers of conservation” is a step in that direction. Parcels of endangered habitat await cooperative efforts by private and public forces in every state. –Pittsburgh Post Gazette

EDITOR’S NOTE: To learn more about Madera Canyon and efforts to protect it, visit