This," breathed the man in the sweater standing next to me, "may be the most beautiful place on Earth."
From anyone else, it would have been a stock, cliched response to the splendor before us: a mountain range bursting from a vast golden meadow, its rhyolite faces soaked crimson in brilliant afternoon sunlight. But this was John C. Sawhill speaking, the president of the Nature Conservancy, proprietor of the largest private system of nature reserves in the world.
And this was the biggest, most costly of the 1,300 choice pieces of the planet owned by his organization, the wealthiest environmental group of all. Three years earlier, Nature Conservancy had invested $18 million, more than a tenth of its entire operating capital, right here: the mammoth Gray Ranch in southwestern New Mexico, on the U.S.-Mexico border.
For years before the purchase, whenever Conservancy computers had sifted through its database cross-referencing about 54,000 key species with sites where they might occur, the Gray always floated to the top. Nearly half the size of Rhode Island, the Gray Ranch, named for a Texas Ranger who originally settled here, most recently belonged to Pablo Brenner, a Mexico City billionaire. In December, 1989, when Brenner suddenly offered the Nature Conservancy two weeks to come up with cash, a quick telephone poll of its board of directors was all it took. Protecting the Gray, they agreed, was crucial.
All of which begged the question that had brought me to the place: Why were Sawhill and company now planning to sell this, their biggest jewel, the flagship of their most ambitious scheme: raising $1 billion to save what they call the Earth's Last Great Places?
Moreover, why would they sell it to another rancher?
I could imagine the reaction among militant conservationists. The West is lately rethinking its cowboy mystique as generations of horseback families collide with a land rush of new, urban settlers. Their arrival, which has endowed formerly pleasant cow towns like Albuquerque and Tucson with all the vulgarities that full-blown cities offer, oddly enough has also spawned ardent environmentalism--a sense of stewardship born of an ancient, instinctive longing for the land, burbling up through a collective, college-educated consciousness. Among the most popular revisionist eco-assertions is that, for more than a century, cowboys have encouraged millions of ravenous cattle to chew their way through plains, across mountains and into vital river drainages, leaving dead native species and eroded desiccation in their wake.
Cattle are now condemned as humid-country, Old World exotics that never belonged in the arid West. Zealous environmentalists have taken to mailing cow pies found in wilderness preserves to land management officials. A proliferating bumper sticker that reads "Cattle-free in '93" refers to a particularly detested, increasingly vulnerable target: leases allowing ranchers to fence off and graze federally owned lands that amount to more than two-fifths the area of the 11 Western states. The current, taxpayer-subsidized grazing fee is $1.86 per cow per month--less, scoffed one Sierra Club official, than it takes to feed a cat for a week. Each election, panicked ranchers and determined environmentalists across the West donate money to politicians in opposite camps.
The Clinton Administration has begun discussing ways to raise fees for public land use by ranchers, miners, loggers, even hikers and hunters. During a recent tour of the West, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt told crowds, "The question is not whether there should be an increase. The question is how much."
I had my own reasons for questioning the Nature Conservancy's surprising plans. For the past few years, assignments have led me with dreary frequency to smoldering remains of tropical forests in countries like Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico and Brazil. Even Costa Rica, with its famed national parks, turned out to be suffering Latin America's highest rate of deforestation, its woodlands sacrificed for pasture to raise more hamburger. There are now so many cows on Earth, I was told by F. Sherwood Rowland, the UC Irvine chemist who discovered how chlorofluorocarbons eat ozone, that methane belched from their four-stomach digestive tracts has become a significant contributor to global warming.