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Cattle vs. Climate? How solar farms could push out Arizona ranchers

Posted at 10:33 PM, Mar 31, 2023

An expanding solar industry is putting strain on traditional Arizona rangelands, and ranchers are seeking ways to be compensated for their future losses.

Ranches in much of Arizona are primarily located on large tracts of state trust land and federal Bureau of Land Management property, which can be leased. John Weisser said his family has been located on the same acreage in eastern La Paz County for 80 years.

"This isn't useable to anybody, but recreation and ranchers," Weisser said.

"Some people look at that part of Arizona as a wasteland," said Sandy Bahr, the director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter.

Climate change is changing the landscape as solar farms, spurred by federal incentives to reduce America's carbon footprint, are looking to develop the Arizona desert.

"One of the great things about Arizona is we have a lot of land, and we have a lot of land that's not currently occupied by people or buildings or farming," said Steve Zylstra, President & CEO of the Arizona Technology Council. "There's no reason in the world that we shouldn't be the leader in the nation in clean energy."

Another draw for solar company development is the Ten West Link transmission line under construction from Maricopa County through the land Weisser leases to California.

"They want to take all the best stuff in the heart of the ranch," Weisser said. "They have four different deals right here in this area."

Weisser and other generational ranchers say they'll have to cut back on their herds and their profits when they're bumped from their leases to make way for more lucrative solar deals. They turned to the Arizona Legislature for help to get compensated for what they'll lose. House Bill 2411, sponsored by Republican state Rep. David Cook, was introduced this year.

"There is every reason to see the value that is coming to the state of Arizona," said Stan Barnes, a solar industry lobbyist. "Some grazing land is going away. It was going to happen. And it's part of the bargain someone with more for the trust will come along and they will have to exit."

Currently, leasees can be reimbursed for improvements they put on government land like fences. But HB2411 proposes to make the solar companies ante up for the ranchers' loss of value of their operation, cost to move the operation, and profit loss for up to five years.

While the bill passed the state House, it stalled with a no vote in a Senate committee meeting Thursday. Some critics said the bill could put a chilling effect on any developer who wanted to lease state or federal lands traditionally used for grazing. Others said the state Land Department is required to go with the highest and best option, and they questioned whether HB2411 would have hindered the ability to make the most money off trust lands to benefit Arizonans.

Many say the state wins by siding with solar.

"We'll benefit from reduced greenhouse gas emissions, the things that are contributing to climate change, and less pollution in our air," Bahr said.

"Everybody's worried about global warming," Weisser said, but he also said his losses could soar into the millions of dollars.

"The more we're going to lose will be to the point where we won't be able to ranch," he added.

Contact ABC15 investigator Melissa with news tips at Melissa.Blasius@abc15.com or 602-685-6362. You can also connect on Twitter and Facebook.