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Good Grazing: Preserving Cattle Country

A coalition of ranchers and conservationists are finding new ways to make cattle ranching compatible with environmental preservation. As NPR's John Burnett reports, the plan pits preservation and financial incentives against development and unrestrained land-use.

Cattle ranchers in the Malpai Borderlands Group receive cash and tax breaks in exchange for keeping their lands out of the hands of developers. They also agree to manage their cattle in ways less likely to damage fragile desert landscapes.

The Malpai Group, which began in 1993, protects 800,000 acres while also sustaining working cattle ranches. And an increasing number of experts think the Malpai model is an idea that could work elsewhere.

The group's lands straddle the line between Arizona and New Mexico, just above the Mexican border near the intersection of the great Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts. The name malpai is border-Spanish for "mal-pais," or badlands.

The Malpai Group came up with a twist on the standard conservation easement. In its "grass-banking" plan, a rancher needing grazing areas gets to rest his land and place his cows on grass-rich pastures at nearby Gray Ranch, owned by a non-profit foundation.

While some ranchers in the area aren't part of the plan, its members say they're trying to find ways to stay in business on arid, remote land. The Malpai Borderland Group is testing the idea that people devoted to preserving a wide-open West should play a central role in its survival.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.