Cows, Condos, and the Contested Commons: The Political Ecology of Ranching on the Arizona-Sonora Borderlands

By Sheridan, Thomas E. | Human Organization, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Cows, Condos, and the Contested Commons: The Political Ecology of Ranching on the Arizona-Sonora Borderlands


Sheridan, Thomas E., Human Organization


Despite the rapid urbanization of the Arizona-Sonora borderlands, cattle ranching continues to play a major, if increasingly contested, political, economic, and ecological role in the region. Unlike other industries, technological manipulation has failed to increase productivity in the range cattle industry. The constraints of aridity and climatic variability have not been overcome. Ranchers on both sides of the border therefore need access to large tracts of land to secure the natural forage their cattle need. Spain and Mexico both recognized communal as well as private forms of tenure, even though neoliberal reforms are weakening comunidades and ejidos. The United States, in contrast, has no communitarian tradition, and U.S. homestead laws never allowed individuals to preempt enough of the public domain to support a cow outfit. Instead, grazing allotments on both federal and state lands provide ranchers with exclusive rights to forage. Those rights are increasingly challenged by some environmentalists, who want cows off public lands. Faced with rising land prices, unstable markets, an unpredictable climate, enormous estate taxes, and increasing political uncertainty over their access to public lands, many ranchers choose or are forced to sell their private land to real estate developers or subdivide it themselves. The resulting fragmentation of the landscape and increasing densities of people deplete water resources and make large-scale ecosystem management, including the preservation of wildlife corridors and the reintroduction of fire, difficult if not impossible.

Key words: grazing commons, ranching, environmentalism, real estate development, water, Arizona-Sonora borderlands

Of all the extractive industries that dominate rural Arizona and Sonora, cattle ranching is the most widespread, penetrating every desert valley and mountain range (Pena and Chavez 1985; Sheridan 1995). More than a million cattle wander across the region's arid and semi-- and deserts and grasslands, and no other activity except dam building and groundwater pumping has affected the environments of Arizona and Sonora as profoundly.

Ranching is also one of the most mythologized, demonized, yet least understood industries in the western United States and northern Mexico. In Arizona, for example, most ranches are a mosaic of public and private lands. Information about the individual allotments that constitute a ranch may therefore be scattered in the offices of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the state land department. None of these agencies-or any other state or federal agency-collects socioeconomic data on ranching households.

Another reason for the paucity of information about the modern livestock industry may be the overwhelmingly urban nature of society in both Arizona and Sonora. World War II and the postwar boom transformed both states. An economy dominated by rural extractive industries, particularly copper mining, cotton farming, and cattle ranching, is now driven by urban service and manufacturing sectors. In Arizona, more than 90 percent of the population live in cities and towns (Sheridan 1995).

Nonetheless, ranching continues to play a major, if increasingly contested, political, economic, and ecological role on the both the Arizona and Sonoran landscapes. There are about 270,000 sheep-mostly on the Navajo Reservation-- and 800,000-900,000 cattle in Arizona (Eakin 1997; Ruyle 1991). More importantly, ranching is the most land-extensive industry in Arizona and has been since the cattle boom of the 1880s, when cattle and sheep quickly spread across the entire Arizona territory (Sheridan 1995). According to range scientist George Ruyle (1991:85), "Approximately 86% of the 62.4 million acres of Arizona surface is rangeland, defined by its ability to support vegetation suitable for grazing animals." In absolute terms, the livestock industry may be a minor part of modem Arizona's economy, but ranching leaves its ecological, economic, political, and cultural imprint on rural landscapes and rural communities throughout the state. …

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