“The Culture, Ecology, and Economics of Ranching West of the 100th Meridian,” Colorado State University, May 4-6, 2000
Ranchers, ecologists, wildlife biologists, conservationists, policy makers, sociologists, economists, ethicists, and those with an interest in preserving open spaces met to explore the future of ranching and the New West as part of a three-day conference organized by Richard Knight, Colorado State University, Wendell Gilgert, NRCS Wildlife Management Habitat Institute, and Ed Marston, High Country News.
Using poetry and stories, as well as studies and data, speakers encouraged the audience to re-examine their beliefs about ranching, conservation, and, most importantly, the land. Ranching is the longest land use in the West, this pastoral culture has sustained five generations of people living on the same piece of ground, but now the West is facing a loss of ranch lands.
In many circles, ranching is a controversial subject, but the speakers and participants of this conference came together easily and naturally. While there are still differences between the groups that participated in the conferences, there is agreement on:
- the common benefits of ranching landscapes (protection of open space, clean air and water, wildlife habitat and corridors, food and fiber, and provision of buffers to public lands, recreation, and human resources);
- the problems facing ranching and rangeland ecosystems (residential development, invasive species, loss of biodiversity and ecosystem processes, loss of community, loss of open space, and loss of beauty); and
- possible solutions (forming partnerships, collaborating, gaining community, protecting and restoring the land).
Lynne Sherrod, Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust, noted that we do not need to always agree on everything to have a successful relationship, but that we do need to focus on what we agree is important—the land and communities. The speakers concurred that those who care about rangeland ecosystems need to form “unthinkable” alliances, lay aside old battles, try innovative approaches, and act despite our fear of failure.
Biodiversity conservation in the West requires conservation of big landscapes. Park and wilderness lands alone won’t be enough; we need to include lands used for other purposes that will also contribute to conservation. Ranchlands can and should be integrated into biodiversity conservation efforts. Bill Weeks, Acting Director of The Nature Conservancy, stressed that conservationists need the land held by ranches to protect biodiversity in the West. The alternative to ranching is not a pristine landscape but something else—degraded range, row crops, or increasingly sprawl.
The rate of agricultural land conversion is dramatic and intensifying. This is resulting in an increasing competition for limited rural lands. Much more money can be made “growing” houses than raising livestock or protecting biodiversity. The intermountain West is the fastest growing region in the U.S. and this growth has translated into large-scale land conversion.
Open space on ranch lands that is not protected in the next ten years will most likely be housing and commercial development in the next 50 years. Since the West consists of half public and half private lands, conservationists and environmentalists need to find a way to work cooperatively with ranchers to ensure the economic viability of family ranches, including those that rely on public land ranching. Ranch families that graze western public lands need that land for summer grass and they cannot afford to purchase the high-priced surrounding private lands. If these ranches are lost, so might the open space they occupy be lost to development.
Many wildlife species rely on private ranchlands, particularly those that are adjacent to public lands. These private lands adjacent to public lands are under increasing pressure as prime spots for residential development. Subdivision and the resulting ecological incongruencies of disparate management can negatively impact migrating wildlife.
Livestock grazing has impacted ecological functions and wildlife, and the results in some cases have been negative, in others they have been positive, neutral, and unknown. Grazing impacts depend on the type of ecosystem and its natural disturbance regime, and how the livestock are grazed or managed. The effects of grazing on wildlife is species specific, some species of concern require grazed habitats, and this can result in trade-offs between what species and systems we decide to protect.
The evolutionary history of plants and animals in an ecosystem is crucial in determining how it will respond to livestock grazing. The Great Plains, for example, has an evolutionary history of grazing by large herbivores. Research by Bill Lauenroth and Ingrid Burke, Colorado State University, demonstrated that livestock grazing is probably sustainable in the Great Plains as it has little impact on soil organic matter, while cultivation of crops removes a large amount of soil organic matter.
Riparian areas have been greatly impacted by grazing (as well as by high use recreation). Wayne Elmore and Steve Leonard, Bureau of Land Management, have worked with ranchers to restore riparian areas by excluding or modifying grazing (season of use, length of use, and stocking rate or intensity) to allow for recovery. However, in a society where instant gratification takes too long, we need to recognize that restoration of lands take place on longer time frames than those on which humans are comfortable operating. Rates of riparian area recovery depend on the condition of the area before recovery efforts, the climate, and the vegetation community type. Spatial scales are also important in riparian restoration. To be effective, all landowners in the catchment must be included in restoration efforts.
A number of Federal initiatives are being developed to address some of the areas of concern common to conservationists and ranchers (e.g., drought, invasive species, climate change, and carbon sequestration). Glenda Humiston, USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, noted that the proposed budget for the National Resource Conservation Service included increases in existing programs and a new Conservation Security Program (which was cut by Congress, but may impact the 2002 Farm Bill). One aspect of this new program is implementing stewardship payments which would reward land owners who manage for conservation. As a society we need to create methods to provide landowners with compensation for biological values and conservation.
Speakers stressed the need to think and manage more holistically, using livestock to restore the land and wildlife populations. For example, TNC uses livestock grazing as a tool to maintain the ecosystem on the Red Canyon Ranch in Wyoming. The measurement of success is not how many pounds of beef per acre, but how that acre looks and what it provides (all its values). Bob Budd, TNC Red Canyon Ranch, stated that we often get caught up arguing about types of use, when we really need to focus on the processes that maintain the landscape.
Several speakers discussed the economics of ranching, stressing that ranchers need to diversify the goods, services, and experiences they provide to increase their economic sustainability. Ranchers can capitalize on the growing interest in conservation through niche marketing that focuses on their commitment to the land, for example Yampa Valley Beef and Conservation Beef (a partnership of TNC, ranchers, and conservation-minded consumers). However, for these niche produces to be effective they must live up to their billing of conservation-friendly beef. Another method that ranchers can capitalize on the public’s increasing interest in natural resources is through tourism and hunting/fishing ventures.
One organization that has committed itself to the ideals expressed at the conference is the Malpai Borderlands Group. Composed of ranchers, environmentalists, scientists, and government land management agencies, participants in this collaboration focus on what they have in common despite their cultural differences. The diversity of environmentalists, ranchers, and federal representatives as a united front gives the group political strength. The alternative to working together is subdivision of these lands, which will change the character of the area, including that of the public lands. The Malpai group is also working with ranchers and other groups across the border to protect lands in Mexico.
ESA Past-President Jim Brown, University of New Mexico, discussed the role of ecological science in the Malpai Borderlands project. The contribution that science can make is to understand and communicate the role that ecological processes play in maintaining the biodiversity of rangeland systems. In this area of high biodiversity, there are four main ecological processes at work: spatial variations in topography, geology, and soils; temporal variation in climate, especially rainfall; fire; and grazing by mega-herbivores. Only two of these can be controlled by humans to manage the land—fire and grazing. In the Malpai Borderlands area, there has been a conversion of the arid grasslands to shrublands. Historic overgrazing and severe drought are responsible for some of these changes, but more recent change (in the last 25 years) is tied to climate change, specifically an increase in the amount of rain received in the winter. Changes in the fire regime may also play a role in the conversion of grasslands to shrublands.
To preserve the land, culture, and people sustained by them, the Malpai Borderlands Group, along with the Animas Foundation and the Gray Ranch, have created a “grassbank”. The Grassbank loans or exchanges the use of its pasture grasses to a rancher placing a land-use easement on his/her land to prevent subdivision. Grass-banking helps protect open space, re-establish ecosystem processes, and improve forage, wildlife habitat, and wildlife populations. Ranchers are able to gain the real economic value of increased forage, rest their land from cattle grazing, and continue operations in the face of uncertainty.
In their presentation about society’s perceptions of ranching, Mark Brunson, Utah State University, and George Wallace, Colorado State University, cautioned about the danger of taking a “Pollyanna” approach in conversations about ranching. Grazing is not wholly good for all range ecosystems. The truth is more complex, but we need to embrace the whole truth. Ranchers and grazing proponents can work with scientists and conservationists to identify times and places where grazing is inappropriate and change their use and management accordingly. Rod Heitschmidt, USDA Agricultural Research Service, suggested that rather than manipulate ecosystems to fit the livestock we’ve designed (a system that relies on cheap fossil fuels), we should manipulate the livestock to fit the ecosystem.
In looking at the future of ranching in the 21st century, Lynn Huntsinger, University of California-Berkeley, stated that we need to re-invent ranching. Criteria for re-inventing ranching include showing the ecological benefits of ranching and conservation-minded management at both the local and landscape levels, capturing the economic benefit of managing for conservation, recognizing the interconnections, and extending the benefits to others so they are willing to pay for them.
Jack Ward Thomas, University of Montana, stressed that open space is open space regardless of ownership. We need to save all that we can to protect biodiversity, habitat, watershed values, and ecosystem processes. Our focus should be on the land itself – the health of it, how it is imbedded in the landscape, what it provides now, and what it can provide in future.
Essays from the conference are being compiled as a book to be published by Island Press. Highlights from the conference are also available as a 40-minute video. For more information regarding these, contact Richard Knight, email@example.com, or Wendell Gilgert, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Elizabeth Stallman
Ecological Society of America
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