The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC), a statewide, nonprofit land trust, has announced that, through a unique, public-private partnership with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF), a 1,010-acre ranch property on the lower Mimbres River in southwestern New Mexico will become one of New Mexico’s newest state wildlife-management areas. The River Ranch will be owned and managed by the NMDGF for wildlife-compatible public recreation and educational purposes.
Funding for the acquisition of the ranch was made possible with a combination of public funds from the NMDGF’s Share with Wildlife Program, the New Mexico Office of Natural Resources Trustee (ONRT) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), combined with private support funding from the Turner Foundation, Element Power and Wells Fargo Bank.
“The acquisition of the River Ranch by the NMDGF is a wonderful gift for New Mexico,” said Scott Wilber, NMLC’s executive director. “As a new state wildlife-management area, the river corridor and the surrounding habitat will be protected for the benefit of wildlife, and the property will serve as a permanent buffer to prevent the encroachment of development on the nearby City of Rocks State Park.”
The River Ranch is approximately 20 miles northwest of Deming and encompasses about a two-mile stretch of its namesake—the Mimbres River—at a point where the river still flows perennially before disappearing underground into the Chihuahuan Desert. The river supports a mature, mixed cottonwood-ash riparian gallery forest including the current state champion velvet ash tree and a seasonally flooded area of rare, native sacaton grasslands, which stand out in sharp contrast to the surrounding desert scrubland. This unique combination of vegetative communities translates into particularly high biological diversity. Black bear, mountain lion, mule deer, javelina, coyotes, bobcats, turkey and a variety of bird species are all known to frequent the ranch.
Conservation of the property started with an initial working relationship established in 2009 between landowners Gene and Elisabeth Simon and the NMLC. The NMLC and the Simons recognized that much of the high-quality private lands located along water or close to public lands in New Mexico are highly susceptible to development. The Simons saw that the best way to protect their land from subdivision and development was to place the entire ranch under a conservation easement (CE). The NMLC worked with funding and support from the New Mexico State Forestry Division to complete the CE in 2011.
Ultimately, it was the Simons’ vision to find a public agency that would be willing to acquire the ranch and manage it for conservation and educational purposes. With the sudden passing of Gene Simon in 2012, the ranch became part of his estate under the management of Wells Fargo Bank. Working with Wells Fargo, the NMLC was able to negotiate for time to find a conservation buyer.
That same spring, the NMLC became aware of potential funding for the project resulting from an environmental settlement between the state of New Mexico and Freeport-McMoRan, Inc., an international mining company. Following a natural-resources damage assessment of its mining operations in southwest New Mexico, this settlement included the creation of a $5.5 million wildlife habitat-restoration fund to be used for land protection and restoration projects designed to offset the impacts of the Chino, Cobre and Tyrone copper mining facilities. The NMLC worked closely with the NMDGF for over a year and a half to prepare a successful application for the River Ranch acquisition.
Finally, in mid-July 2014, with the unanimous approval of the state Game Commission and cooperation among all of the partners, the sale of the ranch to the NMDGF was completed. The sale includes a life estate for Elisabeth Simon that will allow her to live out the remainder of her life on the ranch.
While it took nearly five years to complete the entire process, Elisabeth Simon and her family are pleased with the results. “After living in this valley for so long, Gene and I simply couldn’t stand the thought of breaking up the integrity of this beautiful place and allowing the land to be developed after we were gone,” said Elisabeth Simon, now 95. “I wish that Gene had lived to see this day, but I’m sure that he would be pleased to know that the wildlife and future generations of New Mexicans are going to be able to continue enjoying the ranch as much as we have.”
Founded in 2002, the NMLC’s goal is to protect, directly or in partnership with others, one million acres of high conservation value lands throughout the state by 2037. To date, the organization has helped private and public landowners conserve nearly 130,000 acres of land. The trust works at community, watershed and landscape scales. For more information, visit www.nmlandconservancy.org