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In Arizona's Ranchlands, Humans Vie with Animals for Rights

This weekend, in Vanishing Freedom II: Who Owns America?, Fox News takes a look at how some forms of environmentalism chip away at individuals' personal and property rights.

Hosted by William LaJeunesse, the special airs Saturday May 19 at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT and Sunday May 20 at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT. To find Fox News Channel on your local cable system, click here.

In this, one of several stories from the special, Fox News looks at how one initiative is threatening an age-old way of life in the American desert.

SIERRA VISTA, Ariz. -- If rancher Steve Lindsey waxes poetic about his Arizona ranch, it’s because his family has worked the land since the days of Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at O.K. Corral.

Today Lindsey is in the midst of a fight over the only lifestyle he’s ever known -- grazing cattle and raising a family. It’s a simple life that might be coming to an end because of one group’s effort to make Lindsey’s private land in the canyon a “wildlife corridor.”

The issue has so upset Lindsey that he’s written a poem about his fears of losing his property.

“I leans across my saddle and my heart begins to sink,” said Lindsey, reading his verse. “There goes the sixth generation to ranch of this old rock pile … The cowboy life is what they want - not that city style.”

Wildlife corridors are the concept of Dave Foreman, founder of the Wildlands Project. The group aims to “rewild” the planet by expanding existing wilderness areas and connecting them in corridors.

Ours is “a world infected by us as human beings,” Foreman said. “The Wildlands Project is an effort to use science to do a better job of managing land to protect species and ecosystems.”

Lindsey said that goal means people will be forced out so animals can move in.

“They found an endangered orchid and a water dog and next thing you know, they’ll find some bug or endangered ant,” he said. “They want to take away this ranch and my right to graze. It’s reaching out and grabbing the property rights of the people.”

Foreman said the Project would protect biodiversity but would have to set aside half the land area of the 48 states as wilderness reserves.

Opponents say the initiative is putting animal rights before those of humans.

“The thing that is frightening about the Wildlands Project is that it preaches an anti-human psychological mindset,” said Harold Vangilder, a talk show host in southern Arizona. He thinks the initiative is an environmental agenda that’s influencing Washington and shaping American policy.

In Sierra Vista, Ariz., for instance, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service joined environmentalists in opposing a cemetery for war veterans because it took too much water from the San Pedro River - an important wildlife corridor.

“We all need to reduce our footprint on the environment and that means reducing our habitat destruction and reducing our overuse of water,” said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Sherry Barrett.

Still, some wonder if the Wildlands Project is going too far. It calls for an end to logging in national forests and to mining and livestock grazing on all public lands. It also proposes that roads used by campers, hikers and others be closed.

“They are headed this way,” Lindsey said. “That puts fear in a person. Fear and anger.”

Critics call it a “land grab” and say Foreman and his supporters can’t just throw Lindsey and others off their property - saying they have no authority and no leverage.

But if the Wildlands Project and other groups find endangered species on that property, they may be in business.

Animals like the sage grouse, or prairie hen, which once roamed America’s plains from Iowa to the Pacific Coast but today is becoming extinct. Environmental groups blame grazing. And if it’s listed as endangered, the bird known as the spotted owl of the desert might do what the regular spotted owl did to logging in parts of the Northwest - severely curtail it.

“This country does not have an ecosystem protection act,” said Mark Salvo, who represents 18 environmental groups committed to ending grazing on public lands. “We do have an Endangered Species Act and it’s only through that that citizens can act to bring protection to an ecosystem.”

But Salvo’s efforts could put as many as 20,000 ranchers and their families out of business.

“All my friends are selling out and all the old people I run cattle with say the writing is on the wall,” said rancher Gary Hallows.

“We’re portrayed as villains,” said Andy Taft, a Utah sheep rancher. “I mean, we’re producing commodities for their use.”

Salvo said the ranchers destroy wildlife and lands to make a living.

“They trample nesting habitat, they’ll trample actual nests,” he said. “They open the cover for predators, both ground predators and raptors.”

Utah State University biologist Terry Messmer blames the decline on other factors: urban growth, predators and even the weather. He doesn’t think singling out ranchers is appropriate.

“Just to use the birds as the mechanism to eliminate grazing on public lands by private producers is unfair,” Messmer said. “It doesn’t stand the test of reason.”

Ranchers say the battle isn’t really about a bird - it’s about freedom to use land and make a living. While environmentalists complain cattle and sheep ranchers don’t pay enough to graze on public land, most of those ranchers earn less than $30,000 a year on average.

“I feel my livelihood and what we do here is as vital as any endangered species,” Taft said. “Ultimately I just want the public’s trust. We take care of the land.”

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