Environmentalists are taking over a faded Nevada mining town, but many locals don’t seem to mind.
The Nature Conservancy has become the largest private landowner in the Nye County community of Beatty, where the national organization and its neighbors are working to create a preserve for sensitive desert wildlife and a destination for outdoor enthusiasts a nearly two-hour drive from Las Vegas.
The conservancy’s latest acquisition is a 900-acre (364-hectare) working cattle ranch at the headwaters of the Amargosa River that could one day become a living laboratory for conservation work.
The $2 million purchase more than doubles the conservancy’s already extensive holdings along a lush ribbon of riparian habitat known as the Oasis Valley, about 120 miles (193 kilometers) northwest of the Las Vegas Strip.
“I don’t have a concern with that like I might have 10 years ago, because they’ve demonstrated they’re willing to work with us. That’s important to us,” David Spicer, a conservancy neighbor, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal .
Spicer is a rancher, miner and businessman who has lived in the Beatty area nearly all his life. He’s also the leader of a decades-long campaign to protect the native Amargosa toad and keep it off the endangered species list.
He called the Nature Conservancy an important partner from the beginning.
“We’ve had a relationship with them for more than 20 years now,” said Spicer, who heads a nonprofit called Saving Toads thru Off-Road Racing, Ranching & Mining in Oasis Valley, or STORM-OV for short.
As a result of the grassroots effort in Beatty, much of the rare amphibian’s habitat along the river has been protected without cutting off access to the land or burying local residents in red tape, Spicer said.
The toad population is now considered healthy and stable, with numbers in the thousands.
Through purchase or donation, the conservancy has acquired eight parcels totaling more 2.5 square miles (6.5 square kilometers) in and around Beatty since 1999.
The group has mostly avoided the sort of backlash environmentalists often face in rural Nevada by being a good neighbor, said Ryan Tweney, who retired to Beatty 14 years ago and chairs the town library board.
“The Nature Conservancy has been a huge help to the town in terms of preserving what we need to preserve,” he said. “I think it’s great.”
It doesn’t hurt that the nonprofit organization insists on paying taxes on its holdings, the way any other private landowner would, he said.
The conservancy’s newest property in the area could be the most important, said John Zablocki, Southern Nevada conservation director for the group.
Tucked behind hills northeast of U.S. Highway 95, the 7J Ranch is dotted with ponds, wet meadows and rich pastureland fed by more than a dozen springs. The property has Joshua trees on one side and sagebrush on the other, marking the transition zone between the Great Basin and the Mojave Desert.
Zablocki calls it “the crown jewel of the Oasis Valley.”
Len Warren, Amargosa River project manager for the conservancy, has lots of ideas for the 900-acre spread. As he walked around the property recently, he showed where native trees could provide bird habitat or where a pond stocked with bass might be converted into a haven for the Amargosa toad and endemic springfish like the Oasis Valley speckled dace.
“Our dreams are for it to be turned into an example of how you balance livestock grazing, environmental research and habitat restoration,” Warren said.
Zablocki pictures the ranch as a research station, where scientists from the conservancy and elsewhere can conduct real-world experiments on private land without having to go through lengthy federal regulatory reviews.
The livestock operation will continue with the previous owner leasing from the conservancy.
Longtime Nevada rancher Hank Brackenbury said he bought the 7J about four years ago and decided to sell to the environmental group due to the size of the ranch payment.
This way, he keeps raising beef cattle and the Nature Conservancy gets a crash course in ranching from someone who knows a thing or two.
“It’s all here,” Brackenbury said. “It’s been a good ranch for a lot of years, and if it can continue to be a good ranch, that’d be good.”
The purchase price included grazing rights on 437.5 square miles (1,133 square kilometers) of federal land surrounding the ranch, much of it unfenced and bordered by a massive Air Force bombing range to the east.
The property is also within sight of Yucca Mountain, the proposed repository for the nation’s high-level nuclear waste.
There are about 75 head of cattle on the property right now, he said, but the range can handle more than twice that amount when conditions are good.
Zablocki said the conservancy’s new pastures also could serve as a regional “grass bank,” providing relief forage for other Nevada ranchers stricken by wildfire or drought.
“We actually need grazing as a rangeland management tool,” he said.
The organization is working with a prominent local business owner on a dog park and trail system to lead visitors down to the Amargosa River from the parking lot.
Warren and company also have plans for more boardwalks, signs and native trees at the Torrance Ranch Preserve, the conservancy’s oldest habitat restoration project in the area.
The broader goal for the conservancy and locals like Spicer is to find something new to sustain a once-proud hard rock mining town that’s fallen on hard times.
Ecotourism could be the answer for a community home to fewer than 1,000 people that already serves as a gateway of sorts for nearby Death Valley National Park.
Spicer has invested heavily in that idea. Over the past five years, he has developed more than 50 miles of mountain bike trails on his ranch and surrounding public land, and he has hosted gatherings ranging from Boy Scout campouts to scaled-down versions of the Burning Man counterculture festival in northern Nevada.
“We’ve coined a phrase around here: conservation through recreation,” Spicer said. “Conservation is more effective and durable.”