The Working Wilderness

April 21, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

[An excerpt from Chapter 18 of my book The Age of Consequences]

During a conservation tour of the well-managed U Bar Ranch near Silver City, New Mexico, I was asked to say a few words about a map a friend had recently given to me.

We were taking a break in the shade of a large piñon tree, and I rose a bit reluctantly (the day being hot and the shade being deep) to explain that the map was commissioned by an alliance of ranchers concerned about the creep of urban sprawl into the five-hundred-thousand-acre Altar Valley, located southwest of Tucson, Arizona. What was different about this map, I told them, was what it measured: indicators of rangeland health, such as grass cover (positive) and bare soil (negative), and what they might tell us about livestock management in arid environments.

What was important about the map, I continued, was what it said about a large watershed. Drawn up in multiple colors, the map expressed the intersection of three variables: soil stability, biotic integrity, and hydrological function—soil, grass, and water, in other words. The map displayed three conditions for each variable—“Stable,” “At Risk,” and “Unstable”—with a color representing a particular intersection of conditions. Deep red designated an unstable, or unhealthy, condition for soil, grass (vegetation), and water, for example, while deep green represented stability in all three. Other colors represented conditions between these extremes.

In the middle of the map was a privately owned ranch called the Palo Alto. Visiting it recently, I told them, I had been shocked by its condition. It had been overgrazed by cattle to the point of being nearly “cowburnt,” to use author Ed Abbey’s famous phrase. As one might expect, the Palo Alto’s color on the map was blood red, and there was plenty of it.

I paused briefly—now came the controversial part. This big splotch of blood red continued well below the southern boundary of the Palo Alto, I said. However, this was not a ranch, but part of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, a large chunk of protected land that had been cattle-free for nearly sixteen years.

That was as far as I got. Taking offense at the suggestion that the refuge might be ecologically unfit, a young woman from Tucson cut me off. She knew the refuge, she explained, having worked hard as a volunteer with an environmental organization to help “heal” it from decades of abuse by cows.

The map did not blame anyone for current conditions, I responded; nor did it offer opinions on any particular remedy. All it did was ask a simple question: Is the land functioning properly at the fundamental level of soil, grass, and water? For a portion of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, the answer was “no.” For portions of the adjacent privately owned ranches, which were deep green on the map, the answer was “yes.”

Why was that a problem?

I knew why. I strayed too closely to a core belief of my fellow conservationists—that protected areas, such as national parks, wilderness areas, and wildlife refuges, must always be rated, by definition, as being in better ecological condition than adjacent “working” landscapes.

Yet the Altar Valley map challenged this paradigm at a basic level, and when the tour commenced again on a ranch that would undoubtedly encompass more deep greens than deep reds on a similar map, I saw in the reaction of the young activist a reason to rethink the conservation movement in the American West.

From the ground up. Here’s the map:

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Here’s a view of the ranch:

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Here’s a view of the wildlife refuge:

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My decision received a boost a few weeks later while sitting around a campfire after a tour of the beautiful one-hundred-thousand-acre CS Ranch located in northeastern New Mexico. Staring into the flames, I found myself thinking about ethics. I believed at the time, as do many conservationists, that the chore of ending overgrazing by cattle in the West was a matter of getting ranchers to adopt an ecological ethic along the lines that Aldo Leopold suggested in his famous essay “The Land Ethic,” where he argued that humans had a moral obligation to be good stewards of nature.

The question, it seemed to me, was how to accomplish this lofty goal.

I decided to ask Julia Davis-Stafford, our host, for advice. Years earlier, Julia and her sister Kim talked their family into switching to holistic management of the land, a decision that over time caused the ranch to flourish economically and ecologically. In fact, the idea for my query came earlier that day when I couldn’t decide which was more impressive: the sight of a new beaver dam on the ranch or Julia’s strong support for its presence.

The Davis family, it seemed to me, had embraced Leopold’s land ethic big time. So, over the crackle of the campfire, I asked Julia, “How do we get other ranchers to change their ethics too?”

Her answer altered everything I had been thinking up until that moment.

“We didn’t change our ethics,” she replied. “We’re the same people we were fifteen years ago. What changed was our knowledge. We went back to school, in a sense, and we came back to the ranch with new ideas.”

Knowledge and ethics, neither without the other, I suddenly saw, are the key to good land stewardship. Her point confirmed what I had observed during visits to livestock operations across the region: many ranchers do have an environmental ethic, as they have claimed for so long. Often their ethic is a powerful one. But it has to be matched with new knowledge—especially ecological knowledge—so that an operation can adjust to meet changing conditions, both on the ground and in the arena of public opinion. Of course, a willingness on the part of a rancher to “go back to school” is a prerequisite to gaining new insights. Tradition, however, seemed to have a lock on many ranchers.

The same thing is true of many conservationists. In the years since I cofounded the Quivira Coalition, I came to the conclusion that it had been a long time since any of us had been back to school ourselves. Tradition was just as much an obstacle in the environmental community as it was in agriculture. It wasn’t just the persistence of various degrees of bovine bigotry among activists, despite examples of healthy, grazed landscape like the U Bar, either. It was more a stubbornness about the relation between humans and nature—they should be kept as far apart as possible—expressed in the long-standing dualism of environmentalism that said recreation and play in nature were preferable to work and use.

If conservationists went back to school, as the Davis family did, what could we learn? Aldo Leopold had a suggestion that can help us today: study the fundamental principle of land health, which he described as “the capacity of the land for self-renewal,” with conservation being “our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.”

By studying the elements of land health, especially as they change over time, conservationists could learn that grazing is a natural process. The consumption of grass by ungulates in North America has been going on for millions of years—not by cattle, of course, but by bison, elk, and deer (and grasshoppers, rabbits, and even ants)—resulting in a complex relationship between grass and grazer that is ecologically self-renewing. We could learn that a re-creation of this relationship with domesticated cattle lies at the heart of the new ranching movement, which is why many progressive ranchers think of themselves as “grass farmers” instead of beef producers.

We could also learn that many landscapes need periodic pulses of energy, in the form of natural disturbance—such as fires and floods (but not the catastrophic kind)—to keep things ecologically vibrant. Many conservationists know that low-intensity fires are a beneficial form of disturbance in ecosystems because they reduce tree density, burn up old grass, and aid nutrient cycling in the soil. But many of us don’t know that small flood events can be positive agents of change too, as can drought, windstorms, and even insect infestation. Or that animal impact caused by grazers, including cattle, can be a beneficial form of disturbance.

We could further learn, as the Davis family did, that the key to healthy disturbance with cattle is to control the timing, intensity, and frequency of their impact on the land. The CS, and other progressive ranches, bunch their cattle together and keep them on the move, rotating the animals frequently through numerous pastures. Ideally, under this system, no single piece of ground is grazed by cattle more than once a year, thus ensuring plenty of time for the plants to recover.

The keys are regulating where cattle go, which can be done with fencing or a herder, and the timing of their movement, in which the herd moves are carefully planned and monitored. In fact, as many ranchers have learned, overgrazing is more a function of timing than it is of numbers of cattle. For example, imagine the impact 365 cows would have in one day of grazing in one small pasture versus what one cow would do in 365 days of grazing in the same pasture. Which is more likely to be overgrazed? Hint: have you ever seen what a backyard lot looks like after a single horse has grazed it for a whole year?

We could also learn, as I did, that much of the damage we see today on the land is historical—a legacy of the “boom years” of cattle grazing in the West. Between 1880 and 1920, millions of hungry animals roamed uncontrolled across the range, and the overgrazing they caused was so extensive, and so alarming, that by 1910, the U.S. government was already setting up programs to slow and to heal the damage. Today, cattle numbers are down, way down, from historic highs—a fact not commonly voiced in the heat of the cattle debate.

A willingness to adopt new knowledge allowed the Davis family to maintain their ethic yet stay in business. Not only did it improve their bottom line; it also helped them meet evolving values in society, such as a rising concern among the pubic about overgrazing. Rather than fight change, they had switched.

As the embers of the campfire burned softly into the night, I wondered if the conservation movement could do the same.Image Removed

Age of Consequences:

Courtney’s web site:

Courtney White

A former archaeologist and Sierra Club activist, Courtney dropped out of the 'conflict industry' in 1997 to co-found The Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to building bridges between ranchers, conservationists, public land managers, scientists and others around the idea of land health. Today, his work concentrates on building economic and ecological resilience on working landscapes, with a special emphasis on carbon ranching and the new agrarian movement. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Farming, Acres Magazine, Rangelands, and the Natural Resources Journal. His essay The Working Wilderness: a Call for a Land Health Movement" was published by Wendell Berry in 2005 in his collection of essays titled The Way of Ignorance. In 2008, Island Press published Courtney's book Revolution on the Range: the Rise of a New Ranch in the American West. He co-edited, with Dr. Rick Knight, Conservation for a New Generation, also published by Island Press in 2008. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his family and a backyard full of chickens.

Tags: conservation policies, land health