YERINGTON - Cattle ranch manager Benny Romero is a man with a vision.
In Romero's eyes, cattle ranching and environmental conservation practices go hand in hand and the historic Sweetwater Ranch offers the ideal learning site.
He is currently spearheading an effort to buy the ranch and preserve it as a non-profit, hands-on, educational center.
"If we are successful, this would be the only ranch of its type in the nation," Romero said.
The ranch comprises approximately 7,000 acres of privately owned land and one-quarter million acres of federal grazing allotments. The properties are located in Lyon and Mineral counties and Mono County, Calif., ranging from a desert elevation of 5,600 to 11,800 feet high in the Sierra above Bridgeport, Calif.
One of the most respected ranch managers in Nevada, Romero has served as the manager of the Sweetwater Ranch for the past 29 years. The property is currently up for sale by owner William Weaver.
Romero brought the Conservation Fund, the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension Department and the Range Education Institute together to coordinate a purchase proposal. Conservation Fund officials are currently negotiating with Weaver.
The effort has also brought letters of support from the governor and state Assemblyman Joe Dini.
If successful, the ranch would be purchased by a "conservation buyer", funded through corporate Conservation Fund sponsors, and donated to the University of Nevada College of Agriculture. It would be used as a focal point for education, research and conflict resolution relating to Nevada's natural resource issues while remaining a working cattle ranch. Water rights would remain with the land.
"I see this as a wonderful opportunity to keep the ranch together. With its long history, I would really hate to see it go the way of other ranches and be split apart and possibly subdivided," Romero said. "If this effort is successful, it would remain in open space, with the water staying within the property. It would be good for the owner, the ranch and for the general public."
Romero cautioned that negotiations are still in the tentative stages and the owner could sell to other buyers at any time.
"So far, Mr. Weaver has been a cooperative negotiator, but we are still not sure if our proposal will go. This is very tentative at this point," he said.
Mike Ford, with the Conservation Fund's Nevada office, said the Sweetwater Ranch is the perfect blend of the Fund's goals.
"We are the first conservation organization whose charter includes conservation and economic development as primary goals. This is a classic example of the type of property we are trying to protect."
Ford said the Conservation Fund differs from the Nature Conservancy in two areas, "We are not a membership organization and we are very apolitical. We are funded by corporate sponsors and also have some prestigious foundations."
He lauded Romero's efforts, calling him an extremely dedicated and innovative conservationist, noting, "He has a real commitment. He was into consensus before consensus was cool."
Bob Abbey, with the Reno Bureau of Land Management office, said the ranch is a great educational and research forum for hands on agriculture and resource management and offers BLM an opportunity to partner with different groups and apply what we learn to our public lands.
"Benny is a visionary," Abbey said. "I have a great deal of respect for him and the balanced approach he applies to ranch management, combining economic with conservation concerns."
Abbey said the BLM has no ownership in the proposal and is simply supporting the concept.
Specializing in environmental/conservation issues for Resource Concepts in Carson City, John McClain is very familiar with the ranch and its topography.
"I have done a lot of contracting work for the ranch through the years," McClain said. "In my 34 years of working with natural resources I have never seen an opportunity like this. The diversity of the property offers the perfect facility to scientifically study the many environmental issues that need to be addressed This would be a win-win situation."
McClain, president of the Society for Range Management, an international organization comprised of professionals committed to conservation, is particularly excited about the possibilities of studying the potentially endangered sage grouse species native to the ranch.
"If the sage grouse get put on the endangered species list it would be life threatening to the livestock grazing industry," he explained. "This would offer the perfect opportunity to scientifically study the situation before this happens."
Reviewing the plan during a recent meeting of the Lyon County Commissioners, UNR Cooperative Extension Natural Resource Specialist Ed Smith said the Conservation Fund is very earnest in its motive to find workable solutions to integrating economic and environmental goals.
"One of their programs is to preserve agriculture, prevent subdivisions and preserve open space - to try and find relief to these problems while at the same time promoting conservation," Smith said. "They do not manage land. They purchase it and look for other ways to manage it."
Smith said among the unique features of the ranch are historic sites, a wide range of wildlife habitats and a variety of vegetation types, offering students and others the opportunity to address and research a number of rangeland issues.
Lyon County Commissioner Phyllis Hunewill was glad the proposal was finally presented to the board.
"As you know, there have been a lot of rumors floating around. We wanted to get this information out so everyone can see what the planning is," Hunewill noted.
Commissioner David Fulstone acknowledged there is concern among area residents with private property going into protected or bureaucratic ownership.
"Whether it is the Nature Conservancy or the Conservancy Fund, there are some people who do not support this," Fulstone said. "This has to be looked at very closely through the process."
Commenting last week on the status of negotiations with Weaver, Ford said, "We are working very hard to meet Mr. Weaver's expectations, but the negotiations are nowhere near completion. We have heavily invested in the process, but it remains a risky endeavor for us."
RANGE EDUCATION INSTITUTE
The Range Education Institute is a nonprofit organization comprised of rangeland stakeholder groups, including the Audubon Society, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Nevada Association of Counties, American Farm Bureau, American Mining Congress and the Bureau of Land Management.
Created with startup assistance from UNR Cooperative Extension, the group works to find workable solutions to pressing rangeland management issues.
Benny Romero was instrumental in its formation and is currently chairman.
Ed Smith, UNR Cooperative Extension, is executive director.
THE CONSERVATION FUND
Headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, there are 19 offices nationwide. Opened a little over a year ago, the Great Basin Office is located in Las Vegas.
The Conservation Fund seeks sustainable solutions for the 21st century, emphasizing the integration of economic and environmental goals. Through real estate transactions, demonstration projects, education and community based activities, the fund seeks innovative long-term measures to conserve land and water. Since its inception in 1985 it has been involved in preserving 2.25 million acres nationwide.
According to Nevada Director Mike Ford, the Fund has been involved in the Carson City open space planning efforts; resolving of grazing rights issues at Great Basin National Park; and the purchase of an estate at Washoe Lake.
The 16-member Board of Directors includes: Nelson Rockefeller, Jr.; Gilbert Grosvenor, Chairman of the Board, National Geographic Society; Ms. Ann McLaughlin, former us Secretary of Labor; and William Spenser, former President of Citicorp.
The 27-member Corporate Council includes representatives from: Bechtel Group, Inc; Kelley Oil and Gas Corp.; American Forest and Paper Assoc.; General Motors Corp.; Halliburton Company; Coors Brewing Company; Monsanto Company; International Paper Company; and Pfizer, Inc.
According to Ford, the fund employs fewer than 125 people nationwide, with administrative costs of less than 2 percent of its annual income.
Donations are put into a national revolving general fund to be used at the fund's discretion.
THE SWEETWATER RANCH
The ranch was first settled in the 1850's, its earliest water decree was granted in 1861. The ranch properties include: The Base Ranch at Sweetwater Summit; The Desert Creek Unit; Bridgeport Meadows Unit; Eagle Creek allotment; Whiskey Flat Allotment
The original home was destroyed by fire in 1949. The three-story building was one of the oldest and most picturesque landmarks in the state. Lumber for its construction was shipped by boat from the east to San Francisco, then carted overland by rail and oxen team.
Begun in 1876 and completed in 1882, the building had 24 rooms, a large dance hall and post office. It served as a stage stop to bring supplies to the Bodie/Aurora mining areas as well as a hotel, store, post office and residence.