Land | Ecotrope

How environmentalists become ranchers, loggers and fishermen

Ecotrope | Sept. 10, 2010 3:19 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:46 p.m.

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Ranchers along the Ruby natural gas pipeline are upset that developer El Paso Corp. has given $22 million to two environmental groups that aim to buy up grazing permits on public lands.

With that money, Western Watersheds Project and Oregon Natural Desert Association have access to the cash, essentially, to buy into the ranching business. Once they buy grazing permits off other ranchers, they plan to take that federal land off the grazing market.

This is a market-based approach to conservation that is used in other arenas, too. In logging, fishing and land development, I’ve noticed environmental groups buying into the business to do their own style of natural resource management.

For example, many land trusts buy tracts of farm and timberland and set them aside for conservation. They also pay to put conservation easements on properties slated for development to protect waterways and habitat. Portland-based Ecotrust is in the for-profit logging business. How did that happen? Simple. They bought timberland and started managing it to show how conservation-based forestry can still be profitable.

Some groups use similar strategies to protect the ocean, too. Did you know The Nature Conservancy owns seven trawl fishing permits?

The Conservancy puts it this way:

“By holding or directly managing interests in lands and resources, private organizations such as the Conservancy can protect important sites while gaining a seat at the table when local and regional decisions affecting critical habitat are made.”

Of course, in the case of El Paso’s Ruby pipeline deal, the threat of litigation was a major driver in getting money for land conservation. Hence, the plot thickens.

Potential lawsuits from the two environmental groups opposing the pipeline were threatening to delay El Paso’s project and add up to $19 million to their costs. Putting the cash toward conservation – some of which would have been required by regulators anyway – seemed like a faster way to resolve the disputes.

John O’Keeffe, chair of the Public Land Committee for the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, said he felt El Paso threw the livestock industry “under the bus” in order to build its pipeline.

The pipeline money can only be used to buy grazing permits from willing sellers, among other potential uses for the cash.

But the ranching community out West has seen Western Watershed Project challenge thousands of grazing permits in court and, O’Keefe argues, make willing sellers out of previously not-so willing:

“You know through this litigation process these groups will create a situation where these ranchers can be in a real bind, and you know you’ve got mortgages and bills and operating loans and you can become a willing seller though no fault of your own.”

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