Hope for peace on the range

Ranchers and environmentalists forced to find common ground in thinking about the future of the rural West

Preston Wright

Preston Wright

Photo By Deon Reynolds

Standing in the middle of the Marys River Ranch, it is hard to imagine harboring any doubts about the rightness of ranching in this Western landscape. An old stone house sits comfortably among tall trees beside the thick willows that line the river bottom. Cattle and horses graze peacefully on the meadows beyond. And the hills rise gently toward the river’s headwaters in the Jarbidge Mountains.

Preston Wright grew up here. He left the family ranch to go to Stanford University. But doubts about the future of ranching brought him back.

“I came back because I didn’t think this life out here would last in the modern world,” Wright says. “And it may not.

“But I forget that I used to think that,” he adds.

Wright forgets because more than two decades after coming home and feeling that the ranching way of life might be on its last legs, things are looking better. At least for ranching culture, if not for the cattle business, which has its ups and downs.

The annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering in nearby Elko is one sign of resurgence in appreciation for the culture and arts of ranching. The gathering has become a resounding success, bringing close to 10,000 people to the northeastern corner of Nevada in the dead of winter each year to celebrate the cowboy way.

But it is not just the preservation of the culture that helps Wright forget that he once worried that ranching might not last. There has also been a renaissance in creative thinking about the future of ranching. The poetry gathering has sponsored workshops bringing together people from around the West to talk about securing the place of ranching, and ranching families, on the land. The discussions have ranged from holistic resource management to finding common ground between ranchers and environmentalists in the love of the land.

Preston and his brother John have brought some of those ideas home to the Marys River Ranch. The Lahontan cutthroat trout, an endangered species that thrives in the Marys River, is a sign of that. And so are the sage grouse that make their yearly rounds in the sagebrush-covered hills surrounding the ranch. This summer the Wrights are working with scientists and the federal land management agencies to restore the natural role of fire on the ranch’s private and public lands.

It is tempting to say that the Wrights are not your run-of-the-range ranching family. But in a culture that values iconoclastic individuals, it would not be saying much. There is no typical ranching family.

But Preston Wright is the straight-talking upcoming president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association. So he may stand in for ranchers in general for our purposes for the moment. (And he’ll be getting a lot more practice doing that in the next few years.) And his brother John is an active member of the Northeastern Nevada Stewardship Group, an innovative collaborative group that has brought together ranchers, government agencies, scientists, environmentalists and interested citizens in a search for agreement on how to manage the public lands, which are key to the survival of ranching in Elko and around the West.

Photo By Deon Reynolds

And it is in that process of being involved, as leaders and collaborators within the ranching industry and the wider community, that the Wrights, like dozens of other ranching families around the West, have found the best hope for the future of ranching. These divergent interests are now converging on a growing consensus around an idea that ranchers have long known in their hearts: that working ranches are some of the last best places in the West. In addition to producing such key aspects of the culture of the American West as cowboy poetry and rodeo, ranches are key pieces of the ecological puzzle of the West. And the best way to keep them intact is by keeping ranching on the land.

For many years, an angry debate has raged in the West. Essentially, ever since the great cattle drives of the Old West, ranching has been suspected of chewing up Western ecosystems. In recent years, there have been calls for eliminating grazing from public lands, where ranchers lease pastures from the government. But in a surprising twist in this age-old debate, many scientists are now saying cattle ranches are the last best hope for preserving many native species in the Western United States.

In a recent flurry of studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals such as BioScience, Conservation Biology and Environmental Science & Policy, scientists have concluded that large, intact working cattle ranches are key puzzle pieces holding together an increasingly fragmented landscape.

Over the years, many studies have found some damage from grazing in and around streams in the desert West. But few studies have compared the alternatives to ranching on the private lands that are the home bases not only for ranchers, but for many other species as well. Now, as more and more ranches around the West are going out of business and being subdivided, scientists are beginning to take a closer look at what happens when ranches are carved up into “ranchettes.”

Dr. Richard Knight, a professor of wildlife biology at Colorado State University, recently compared 93 similar sites on ranches, in state wildlife refuges and in subdivisions with densities of about one house per 40 acres, which is typical on newly subdivided ranches. He found ranches have as much or more diversity of birds, carnivores and plants as similar areas that are formally protected as state wildlife refuges. And ranches have fewer non-native species, such as invasive weeds, than wildlife refuges, he found. But, more important, working ranches provide better habitat for wildlife than ranches that are subdivided. Ranchettes have fewer native species and more invasive species than ranches or protected areas.

These findings take on added significance in light of recent demographic trends that show the West is growing faster than any other region in the country. And much of that growth is taking place in rural areas. Land conversion from agriculture to other uses is taking place at an even faster rate than population growth.

Adding to their importance, private ranch lands are often situated at lower elevations with richer soils and more water than surrounding public lands. In some cases, private ranch lands are actually more productive breeding grounds for songbird populations than the higher-elevation public lands, says Dr. Andrew Hansen, an associate professor of ecology at Montana State University. When ranches are converted to ranchettes, some species get squeezed between increasing development at lower elevations and higher elevation lands that are protected but are not productive breeding habitat.

The radical centerOf course, songbirds are not the only ones feeling the squeeze. Ranchers are too. But lately the position in between has become a little less lonely, as scientists and some environmentalists have begun to join the ranks of people recognizing the importance of ranches in the West.

Bill McDonald, the executive director of the Malpai Borderlands Group in Arizona, one of the oldest and most successful collaborative groups in the West, once dubbed this the “radical center.” Now he says he is ready for it to stop being the radical center and just be the center.

Although this center between the extremes in the grazing debate is steadily expanding, there is no road map for how to get there. But there are tools. And it is becoming clear that it is the place to be.

“The status quo means eventual bankruptcy,” says Jim Winder, a New Mexico rancher and founder of the Quivira Coalition, another collaborative group that works with ranchers throughout the Southwest.

Photo By Deon Reynolds

“It is in the best interest of ranchers to join with environmentalists to solve conflicts in ways that enhance both biodiversity and economic stability,” Winder says. “If we embrace change, we will find that our enemies can be our friends, and the threats will become the very opportunities that will keep the land in the family for another generation.”

In other words, the threat of ranches being turned into ranchettes is creating opportunities for ranchers to make their case for more productive rangelands, which will be good for cattle and good for wildlife.

“Increasingly, the American public requires more of their rangelands than fat cows,” Winder says. “These lands need to produce clean water, habitat for wildlife and natural beauty.”

Courtney White, an environmentalist who joined Winder to form the Quivira Coalition, puts it this way: “Coalition members believe that ranchers and environmentalists share too much in common to keep fighting—love of land, for example, and a desire to experience solitude and beauty.”

But seeing this common ground does not automatically make working together easy, as Lynn Sherrod, the executive director of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust, told a group that gathered at Red Lodge in Montana to discuss collaborative efforts around the West last fall.

“You have to have all the players at the table,” she said. “The strange bedfellows representing the full gamut of local attitudes and interests: hard-bitten, property-rights old-time ranchers; newly arrived folks bringing outlandish ideas with them; environmentalists, suspicious that there was a slash-and-burn agenda in someone’s back pocket; agency representatives, pleased to be among the invited; county commissioners; town representatives and just plain community members.

“It takes an incredible amount of intestinal fortitude to stay there and be active and not leave the table,” Sherrod admitted. “You stay there because it’s important to tell people what you are for, not what you’re against. That’s the basis for true collaboration.”

In Nevada, the collaborative spirit has been forged in fire. Specifically, in rangeland wildfires, which are increasingly recognized as both the symptom and cause of a landscape-scale transformation of the sagebrush grasslands that cattle and wildlife depend on.

The number of acres burned by wildfire in the state has doubled each decade since the 1950s. In 1999, 2 million acres burned. Much of that burned land was invaded by cheatgrass, a fast-growing annual grass that thrives with frequent fires. Cheatgrass dominates over 9 million acres of Nevada now and is a major component of many more acres and a contributor to conflagrations that have scorched millions of acres and cost millions of dollars over the last decade

This wildfire of change is sweeping across the land on such a vast scale that no single landowner or agency can tackle it alone. So, in Ely, a group called the Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition came together last year “to restore and maintain the biological and ecological health of the Great Basin landscape through collaborative efforts.” The coalition has 50 partners, including such conservation organizations as Big Horns Unlimited, the Fraternity of Desert Sheep, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Red Rock Audubon Society and The Nature Conservancy, in addition to local ranchers and the Bureau of Land Management.

Betsy Macfarlan, the former executive director of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, says the group “realized that the Band-Aid approach, addressing resource issues individually instead of as a whole, is not working … [and] that the federal agencies would be more successful in their endeavors to tackle landscape-sized restoration projects on federal lands if they had the support of a broad-based coalition.” Macfarlan was so impressed with the effort that she went to work for the coalition. Its goal is to restore 10 million acres of woodlands, sagebrush communities, riparian areas and grasslands.

Photo By Deon Reynolds

The coalition’s newsletter puts the task bluntly: “We are at a pivotal point in the transformation of our range and forest lands. We can continue with business as usual or we can take action to insure that our public lands will provide a productive habitat for wildlife, livestock and people into the future. Business as usual will lead to landscape dominated by cheatgrass and other non-native weeds.”

Fortunately, there seems to be increasing support in high places for such grassroots efforts.

Kathleen Clarke, the director of the BLM, visited Ely in March. “I think this is exactly the type of model that I’d like to see the BLM adopt,” she told the coalition. “I truly believe that conservation efforts in this country are going to work when you have such citizen-based stewardship.”

Clarke’s endorsement echoed earlier statements by her boss, Interior Secretary Gale Norton. “Successful conservation is a partnership between the government and people,” Norton said last year, while announcing a program to encourage such collaborative efforts. “The government’s role is to empower people to take conservation into their own hands.”

The Bush administration has asked Congress for $100 million for a Cooperative Conservation Initiative. The money would be split between the states and the Interior Department for community-based, cost-sharing conservation projects.

Norton called the initiative an example of a “new environmentalism”—empowering citizens and landowners to take conservation into their own hands. The secretary said this was the fourth wave of the environmental movement in the United States.

The first wave came when President Theodore Roosevelt set up the national wildlife refuge system, the Forest Service and 18 parks and monuments, she said. The second wave came with Aldo Leopold’s land ethic of managing public lands and resources as a whole, rather than for separate uses. Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, set off the third wave, leading to laws to protect the environment, but also to conflicts between the economy and environment.

The new fourth wave of environmentalism focuses on incentives rather than punishment, said Norton, and will be driven by “citizen conservationists” who emerge from the fray of previous battles to find grassroots solutions to environmental problems.

There is a growing groundswell of support for such a fourth wave of environmentalism around the West and here in Nevada. In a recent survey conducted by the University of Nevada, 80 percent of residents in rural northeastern Nevada said they preferred a collaborative citizens’ participation or grassroots approach over debating these conflicts in the courts. And 64 percent said they or someone they know would be willing to work with a citizens’ group to identify and discuss natural resource issues.

Leta Collord, one of the founders of the Northeastern Nevada Stewardship Group in Elko, calls this approach “community-based stewardship.”

“We’re talking about a place-based, community-based—in fact, community-led—process for stewarding landscapes, watersheds and ecosystems,” Collord says. Collord has taken that message right to the top. “We should be looking for a new relationship among government, science and citizens that supports stewardship by people, rather than looking for more regulatory and decision-making powers in government,” she testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee last year.

Photo By Deon Reynolds

“Science needs to be better connected to, and used by, citizens and communities if it is going to have much of an effect on solving the many challenges we face now and into the future,” Collord told the Senate.

Collord said the local culture “may not presently contain all the knowledge, or even the right land ethic, needed to steward the land in the greater interest of the society, but all that can change through a process aimed at incorporating science into local knowledge and wisdom. “That’s our challenge.”

It is a challenge the Northeastern Nevada Stewardship Group has embraced. “It’s a constant mindset of learning,” Collord says. “Keeping on trying to solve problems, being problem solvers, rather than fist shakers.”

The group is currently immersed in negotiating a plan to ensure the survival of sage grouse in the high-desert sagebrush steppes of northeastern Nevada. It involves meeting with and learning the history of each and every ranch and ranching family in the area. But taking it one family at a time is the only way forward, Collord says.

“Each one has to look at the land a little differently,” she says, “because the lay of the land is different, their finances are different, their opportunities, their families are different.”

Collord believes this is not just the only way to move forward. It is the right thing to do.

“I have strong feelings about the rightness of people on the land to really be fully engaged in the process of managing their lands,” she says. “When community-based stewardship was brought into this community as a viable process of engaging communities in a credible and responsible manner, that idea clicked in my mind as a way to work. I do believe this will serve our community’s needs and our nation’s needs for taking care of public lands, and it will sustain our needs, the families I know about.

“People on the land are an overriding necessity of making the situation better. They understand how the land works.”

Doug Clarke, a planner with the U.S. Forest Service in Elko, agrees. “I think if we can do that soul searching together, looking for common answers, common solutions, we can keep the West, our vision, alive,” he says.

“There are a lot of good ideas and a lot of good energy on what I think now is the buzzword, ‘community-based stewardship planning,’ I think that’s what’s going to keep the ranching community alive: looking at new ways to work with the government, outside interests, ways of getting healthy rangelands, and keeping working landscapes. Keeping the cowboy on the land; keeping ranching going in a sustainable way.”

On the Marys River Ranch, Preston Wright says trying something new might be the only way to ensure that the ranching way of life he once thought might disappear will survive.

“I think there are some people who feel we could go back to something we had before and that would be a good thing, and a fair thing,” he says. “I don’t think we could do that. I think the problems we have grew out of what we had before. And I think we need something new.”

Jon Christensen is the author of Nevada, a book of essays celebrating the Silver State with photographs by Deon Reynolds. Christensen has written for many publications, including The New York Times and High Country News. He edits GreatBasinNews.com and produces “Nevada Variations,” a monthly feature on each of the state’s 17 counties, on Nevada Public Radio. Recently, Christensen was awarded a Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University, where he will focus on evaluating environmental conservation projects. This article ran in the program for the Reno Rodeo 2002.