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People Archive Photo
Holly Richter poses with Huckleberry, one of several rescued equines she cares for.

© Joel Grimes


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Mothering Nature
As director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Arizona, Holly Richter has spent years bringing together people with disparate agendas: ranchers, environmentalists, scientists, politicians and regular people. It's an arduous task, but she'll do whatever it takes to protect the things she finds most precious: nature and animals.

By Terry Greene Sterling

On a rainy December night in Southern Arizona, Holly Richter faces a conflict. It’s not the usual environmental conflict fueled by competing needs for diminishing water supplies or frail landscapes, the kind of conflict she sees as the Arizona chapter of The Nature Conservancy’s director of conservation. On this night, Richter faces a clash within herself, and it centers on a neglected donkey.

She knows she probably shouldn’t rescue another equine — the corrals on her property bordering the San Pedro River are already full of expensive-to-maintain horses and donkeys she’s either inherited or rescued, and she also owns two dogs, a cat and several parrots. Still, this donkey will surely die or be slaughtered if she doesn’t step in, and she doesn’t know how she could live with herself if she just stood by and let it happen. Weakened by hunger, the donkey struggles to lift his head, as though he can read her mind. When Richter walks away, the donkey lets out a long, mournful bray.

Of course, Holly Richter takes the donkey home.

***

On a warm day when I visit, Richter stands outside her new donkey’s corral. His name is Louie, and in the few months he’s been with her, he’s gained weight and strength. But, like most abused or neglected animals, it’s taking him a while to trust humans. What’s more, for most of his life he’s been a jack, the donkey equivalent of a stallion in the horse world, and although Richter’s had him castrated recently, he might still be aggressive toward other animals — or Richter. Today, she wants to take Louie on a little walk, but she won’t push him if he’s not willing. So she assesses the donkey’s mood in what she calls a “pre-flight check-in.”

This pre-flight check-in involves Richter putting Louie’s nose into the halter while she’s still outside the corral. He doesn’t mind. She pulls the halter behind his ears. No resistance. He allows her into the corral. She gives him a treat. “Head up, head up,” she says in her measured voice. He lifts up his head. Louie’s ready for takeoff.

A tall, strong woman with long brown hair and piercing dark eyes, Richter leads Louie out of the corral and onto a dirt road linking the corrals and her house. “Step up, step up,” Richter tells Louie. She walks him, stops him, walks him, stops him. When she gets Louie comfortable with his new world, she hopes to hop on his back one day. But, for now, there is this small walk, with lots of treats, and a return to the corral.

Richter lives on a small ranch near Palominas. Her beloved San Pedro River, shaded by enormous cottonwood trees, runs behind the house. The house is surrounded by grassland, which is home to a lot of snakes, and sometimes they come into the garage. In the summer, toads live on the front porch and she gets attached to them.

The living room contains two Southwestern-style couches and a cage in which Harley, the African grey parrot, perches. A bookcase in the hallway holds diverse titles — The Alex Studies (about a parrot), Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth, Mammals of Colorado and the Range Plant Handbook. The hallway leads to her office, which is home to another caged parrot; a display case with a bobcat track in a clump of clay; beaver, pronghorn, javelina and badger skulls; draft-horse and donkey horseshoes; a jade plant; an indoor-outdoor enclosure that prevents the cat from eating birds and coyotes from eating the cat; a desk; and several fat Nature Conservancy project binders.

She’s worked for The Nature Conservancy since 1987, and now, at 53, she oversees all of the nonprofit’s conservation programs in Arizona. She’s got the measured, careful persona of a woman who’s spent years forging consensus between people with competing needs for Arizona’s depleting water supplies and imperiled landscapes. She’s good at working with ranchers, scientists, politicians and regular people. That’s partly because she tries to see the world through their filters. A rancher, for instance, might think climate change is a liberal concoction, and a hydrologist might deem it a fact of life, but everyone agrees there is a “prolonged drought.” Richter says her job is to ask, “So, what are we going to do about it?” and help people come to consensus on how to preserve diminishing water supplies.

From her kitchen window, you can see the blue Huachuca Mountains out past the grasslands. We’re sitting near the 1940s-era stove. Harp music rolls out of the satellite radio. We’re looking at a red scrapbook her mother put together. There are pictures of Richter as a baby and small child at home in rural New York. Her mom died unexpectedly when Richter was 9. Her father remarried and forged a blended family that Richter valued and loved; she says her “ability to develop productive working relationships with conservation partners” stems in part from the “values and support I inherited from my family.”

She’s happiest when everyone else is happy with an environmental solution — such as when stakeholders forged an agreement recently to replenish the San Pedro near Palominas. The project explores new ways to capture storm water so it can sink into the ground and bolster dwindling groundwater that feeds a river threatened by drought and overuse.

There is much that’s been done, a lot more to be done and a certain urgency brought on by the “prolonged drought.” But Richter takes action in the face of huge environmental odds because, she says, if you let the enormity of a problem overwhelm you, it becomes paralyzing.

She’s not paralyzed. She’s got an office in Tucson, her house and her Toyota Prius. She’s relentlessly driven to rescue what she holds most precious: nature and animals. Before I leave, I ask her how she sustains her drive, and she says, “That’s hard to answer, but I guess, at the end of the day, you want to know you made a difference.”

***

A few months later, Louie’s out in the pasture with Richter’s beloved Huckleberry, a hardworking, gentle donkey she’s owned for years. Out of the blue, Louie attacks Huckleberry, who is much smaller. With Louie riding on his back, Huckleberry runs to the barn for help, and Richter has to whack Louie with a rope to get him off Huckleberry.

Huckleberry survives, but Richter’s faced with another internal conflict. Louie is a threat to her other, good-natured equines. She’s forced to make a heart-wrenching decision. She gives Louie to a friend of a friend, someone who has a much larger donkey, named Peacemaker, at a ranch near Sonoita. Peacemaker doesn’t put up with Louie’s kicks or bites, and Richter says Louie is happy there.

In the end, she says, “rescuing and managing equines” isn’t all that different from tackling complex environmental problems. You can’t always make everything perfect, but at least you can make a difference. She rescued Louie, and he’s healthy now. Of course, he’s not living on her ranch, as she’d hoped, but she knows things don’t always turn out as expected. “Fix what can be fixed,” she says. “Don’t just throw up your hands and sit back.”

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