Monday, 11 February 2008

Saguaro-Juniper, a land covenant in Arizona

Saguaro-Juniper is a group of over 60 associates holding both deeded and leased land from the state in SE Arizona. The Covenant Preamble reads: “In acquiring private governance, we agree to cherish its earth, waters, plants and animals in a way that promotes the health, stability, and diversity of the whole community.” Several associates were Quakers involved in the Sanctuary Movement, which smuggled refugees into the United States during the 1980s US-backed wars in Central America. Many had worked together for years on environmental and social justice causes; some were cattle raisers. In 1986 they bought $1500 shares in the Saguaro-Juniper ranch corporation, and signed the Covenant that converts ownership to earthcare:

1. The land has a right to be free of human activity that accelerates erosion.
2. Native plants and animals on the land have a right to life with a minimum of human disturbance.
3. The land has a right to evolve its own character from its own elements without scarring from construction or the importation of foreign objects dominating the scene.
4. The land has a pre-eminent right to the preservation of its unique and rare constituents and features.
5. The land, its water, rocks and minerals, its plants and animals, and their fruits and harvest have a right never to be rented, sold, extracted, or exported as mere commodities.

The Cascabel Hermitage Association and the Saguaro-Juniper associates follow the Covenant by active interventions such as careful herding of cattle to prevent overgrazing and building check-dams in the upper washes to prevent erosion. Native vegetation has recovered so well that the community is now studying whether or not to do controlled burns on the upper parts of the land in order to prevent a future lightning strike from starting a wildfire that could kill stands of magnificent, slow-growing saguaros. The careful practices of the Saguaro-Juniper members who herd cattle on the land have enabled denser vegetation to grow in the main wash of the canyon. This vegetation slows flash floods, reducing erosion and trapping sediments and nutrients that further enhance the plant and animal habitat. Refraining from anything more than minimal interference with the land has been the most significant practice of these followers of the Covenant. See also their defence of San Pedro Valley wildlife against a proposed highway.
The book Sanctuary for All Life (Howling Dog Press, Box 853 Berthoud CO 80513-0853) by S-J philosopher-hermit Jim Corbett is a long meditation on the ancient Hebrews as a cimarron people -- those who live in the wild, rejecting slavery. In his view, theirs was a sabbatical way of life -- one lived in harmony with nature, interfering only minimally in the natural order, honoring the sacredness of all life. Fusing dry desert humour and Quaker queries with Jewish mitzvot, he raises fundamental questions of ecology.

In our time,
he says, "It is as difficult to imagine a civilized humanity that is no longer exiled from Nature, as it is to imagine a civilization that ceases to enslave life on earth." Torah -- "law, guidance, instruction, way-of-life wisdom" -- must be lived through "participation in a base community that seeks to learn and walk the hallowing way." In this he echoes native spirituality:
With beauty above me, may I walk.
With beauty below me, may I walk.
With beauty all around me, may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I walk.
It is finished in beauty.
It is finished in beauty. (excerpt from the Navaho Blessing Way)


steve szeghi said...

From Steve Szeghi

This group, Saguaro Juniper Stewardship Covenant seems very interesting and well meaning but I would have several questions for them.

1, Why is it necessary for non-native people to graze any cattle on this land at all? The arid lands of the southwest are far less capable of supporting cattle than land in Ohio or Kansas or Missouri? Why not leave these lands to wilderness, to public ownership, or to indigenous peoples who are desperately poor and needful of resources?

2, Why not work with the trust for public land ( or the nature conservancy ( to take as much leased public and deeded private land off the market as possible and then deed it back into public ownership under stipulation it will no longer be leased to any private party or parties, for mining, grazing or any other purpose? In order to appreciate the work of the trust for public land check this article at:

3, Why not work with the wilderness society ( to obtain wilderness designation for these lands once they pass into public ownership or possibly as a condition for public ownership?

4, If this land is neither a good candidate either for wilderness designation or a parcel which would complement the wilderness system or public lands in general and if this land is truly economically viable for cattle or other purposes why not deed it back to indigenous peoples, working with them on sustainable practices in ways which all species can flourish?

5, Are any of these lands claimed by any indigenous peoples of the southwest? If these lands are claimed by American Indians then that should be considered first. Sovereignty of American
Indian land claims should be a major factor in determining ethical land use.

6. Is not public ownership of vast tracks of land an economic and social justice issue? For most Americans public ownership is their greatest asset. These lands belong to all of us. We hold them in common. They deserve to be protected from commercial use of any kind. The public lands system in the United States needs to be reformed not abandoned.

Wilderness designation already yields the highest level of protection conceivable. National Forests, BLM lands, Wildlife Refuges, and National Parks are all pock-marked by private holdings. These parcels need to be bought by the public land system either directly or through the efforts of groups such as The Trust for Public Land or The Nature Conservancy. Public lands of all types need greater protection in the form of Wilderness designation or Bill Clinton’s roadless rule of 2000, or through other restrictions. They belong to all of the people for hiking, for wildlife viewing, and for other low impact uses. These lands should not be subject to private use, particularly commercial use since private use compromises the integrity of the land for all. They should not be leased or sold, not even to well meaning groups as that compromises public ownership, holding the land in common.

As I said at the top, this group of people (SJSC) seems well meaning and interesting. Their practices of land use seem to be gentle on the earth compared to what usually goes on. What they do is far better than the typical grazing practices and far far far better than if this land went to real estate development. For that they should be commended. On the other hand public lands which are well protected give pristine wilderness to us all. Maybe the land has an even better use than what SJSC envisions or should I say non-use, just let it be, and let us continue to hold it in common.

fdmillar said...

One of the S-J group replies:
Most of the previous comment is not applicable to our situation.
1) the land is former grass land and grazing is a way for humans to interact productively with a wild land.
2) the bulk of the land is state owned grazing lease land. we do have private land that TNC has been involved with us in protecting.
3), 4), 5) are all answered by these are state lands which are leased for grazing.
6) I think he means private ownership
[Ed. The threat is not necessarily from private ownership. The majority of grazing land is already state-owned. What is at issue is not the ownership regime, but the stewardship regime: how best to preserve the ecosystem. In other areas, state grazing leases are criticized for permitting over-grazing. See answers 2-5 above. In fact S-J is trying to preserve the commons.]