Cottonwoods line Babocomari Creek, much of which is now protected thanks to conservation easements signed by the Brophy family. Photo by Marion Vendituoli

The development rights to 2488 acres of the Babacomari Ranch are now protected from development by a conservation easement deal signed in January 2020 by the Brophy family, owners of the historic ranch in Elgin, and the Arizona Land and Water Trust (ALWT). 

This easement, along with two previous easements granted in 2007 and 2010, conserves approximately 5,700 acres of the watershed of the Babocomari Creek, a tributary of the San Pedro River. All three conservation easements are located on a portion of the ranch that lies between the Elgin Canelo Rd. and Hwy 90. These easements protect a unique riparian habitat, prevent potential groundwater pumping due to development, and maintain an important wildlife corridor between the Mustang and Huachuca Mountains. 

The Brophy family is only the third owner of the 28,000-acre ranch, which stretches from west of Hwy. 83 in Elgin to east of Hwy 90 leading into Sierra Vista. The ranch was originally established as a land grant deeded to the Elias family in 1832 by the Republic of Mexico. The ranch changed hands in 1877 and again in 1935 when it was purchased by Frank and Sally Brophy. 

At present there are 68 family members who collectively own the ranch. Approximately 50% of them are 4th and 5th generations to have a stake in the property, according to Charles McChesney, a grandson of Frank and Sally Brophy, and a member of the family board that oversees the ranch. 

McChesney said that there are no other easements in the works for 2020, but that the family “has targeted approximately 12,000 acres, looking to put them into conservation easements in order to sustain the ranch for generations down the road.” The easements provide for continued use of the land for ranching and other activities. He said that the agreements state that “the landowner will maintain the conservation values, the natural resources, that existed at the time the easement was entered into.” At present the ranch runs a small herd of cattle and leases out most of the rest of the property to local ranchers. 

One of the purchasing partners for the easements was the Dept. of Defense, which McChesney feels would be interested in securing more area around Ft. Huachuca, which abuts the ranch. The previous two easements are held by the Bureau of Land Management, with the Nature Conservancy acting as the monitoring agent. 

The Babacomari Ranch “is a unique property. Everyone who goes to the property says it’s a special place,” McChesney said, but added, “It’s hard to keep,” referring to the expense and challenges faced by the family to maintain the ranch. “If you keep the land healthy, you have to maintain it. That takes money.” He pointed out that his grandfather, whom he referred to as “the original conservationist in our family,” had outside income to help keep the ranch. “By the time we get down to the third, fourth, fifth generations, we’re all middle class, working people,” he said. “There’s not an outside source to sustain it. The ranch could support a couple of families, but it’s not going to support 68 people.” 

The family rents out a guest house and leases a sand and gravel operation to help support the ranch. They have also sold 5,000 acres to the east of Hwy 90 in Cochise County. The family is “looking at other opportunities that can both conserve the property and make it useful,” McChesney said. 

McChesney’s biggest fear for the ranch’s future would be “apathy amongst the family members down the road as people own diluted shares and their lives are so busy.” But he feels that there it is more likely that the next generation will step up to protect the ranch with “continued enthusiasm, with new ideas and new energy.” 

He believes that the younger members of the family will be interested in keeping the ranch intact. “Their primary interest is the family continuity, keeping the connections with their cousins and their forebears,” he said. “The family history in Arizona is a compelling story. The ranch is a tool for keeping that relationship between people in their 20’s and the people who arrived here in the 1880’s.”