Environmentalists speaking out for ranching

Mar 11, 2011

Most ranch owners roll out of bed each morning with the intention of doing what’s right: for the cows, for the calves, and for the land they graze on. Obviously, it literally pays to be a good land steward; good grazing practices mean healthier range, taller grass, and higher weaning weights. But for most of us, doing what’s right for the environment isn’t just a matter of the bottom line. After all, we choose to live closer to the land than just about any other profession. That’s not by accident. We work in the natural world because the natural world is what we love. Indeed, for many ranchers, caring for the land is not unlike caring for loved ones, or raising children. It is an end in itself.

Perhaps this is why the constant accusations from anti-grazing groups, decrying ranching as a scourge of the environment, are so difficult to stomach. Ranchers, we are told, destroy ecosystems. They are accelerating climate change. They are addicted to government "welfare." They are killing the range.

To be sure, ranching, like any industry, has had its share of poor managers. But also like other industries, grazing practices have become far more enlightened than they were in the past, even 20 years ago. Responsible grazing has now been widely recognized as ecologically sustainable, even beneficial, by many prominent range scientists and wildlife biologists. More than any other time in the past, ranchers now have the knowledge and the tools to benefit the land.

So why do so few people seem to know that ranchers care about the environment?

This is the question the industry has collectively been trying to answer over the past several years. Efforts to educate the public about ranching have been mixed, at best. Everyone in the industry has doubtless been told to "Get your story out there." But with some very notable and admirable exceptions, most ranchers aren’t bloggers, or tweeters, or authors, or filmmakers. We raise beef. That’s what we know.

But the conservation community is speaking out. Environmental advocates—both individuals and organizations—are taking up the torch, broadcasting the message that many ranchers are exemplary land stewards, and that sustainable ranching can be part of the solution to a host of environmental ills.

In Colorado, one artist has used his camera to tell ranching’s story with amazing visual impact.

John Fielder is an internationally renowned nature photographer. Winner of the Sierra Club Ansel Adams Award, he has published over 30 books of landscape and wildlife photography. A self-proclaimed preservationist, and an avid backpacker and skier, Fielder spent many years viewing cattle as a blight on the landscape.

"Like most people uninformed about ranching," explained Fielder, "I only drew on what I had read about in history," like the huge cross-continental cattle drives and dustbowl ranges at the turn of the 20th century.

What changed Fielder’s mind was his experience making a photographic book about Colorado ranches. Titled "Ranches of Colorado," this visually lush and stunning book photographically documents 50 of Colorado’s most scenic ranches.

"[A]fter spending two years with 50 cattle-ranching families, I came to better understand the true value of ranching," relates Fielder.

"I discovered that ranchers are environmentalists in almost every sense [that] I consider myself an environmentalist."

Among other things, Fielder mentions how ranches provide critical winter habitat to wildlife on their private lands which would be lost if ranches were sold and subdivided. In Colorado especially, where development has been widespread, fragmentation of these open spaces has led to huge habitat loses.

"Without ranch meadows and willing ranchers who allow these creatures to graze on their mowed meadows, they’d have no place else to go."

Fielder also explains that he came to appreciate the cultural value of ranching families and communities by spending time with ranchers and learning about their customs first-hand.

"Ranches [have] heritage and history that define not just the American West and that way of life, but define the fabric of American society: Do business on a handshake; look you in the eye when they talk to you; finish a job after they start it. Without ranchers, we lose the essence of why American society is different from every other society on earth."

Ranches of Colorado captures the ethos of these places with Fielder’s highly-skilled photographer’s eye. The text of the book, written by James Meadow, explains the values, both ecological and cultural, that these beautiful, bucolic lands have to offer.

"My hope is that my photos ... show people how beautiful and glorious ... from a visual standpoint these places are," says Fielder, adding that an increased appreciation for the aesthetic and ecological value of ranching is something readers of his book may ultimately take to the voting booth. Fielder certainly hopes so.

Fielder’s work is spectacular, but it is not the only book documenting the conservation achievements of ranchers. Generations on the Land: A Conservation Legacy, just released in February, tells the stories of eight winners of the prestigious Leopold Conservation Award administered by the Sand County Foundation. Six of these eight exemplary land stewards are ranchers.

"They actually prefer not to be called ‘winners,’ because they think they’re just one among many. ... They tend to be quite modest anyway," explains Kevin McAleese, vice president and program director at the foundation.

"[Recipients] shy from having the spotlight of attention placed on them. But they agree by receiving the award to become kind of an ambassador ... for the people in their industry to represent what agriculture can mean for conservation."

The Sand County Foundation created the Leopold Conservation Award to give long overdue credit to landowners who have shown outstanding stewardship through their passion, ingenuity, and dedication. McAleese pointed out that the awards are presented at high-profile events. High visibility of the award serves to inspire and encourage others, and sets the bar higher for land management.

Recipients of the award receive $10,000 and a Leopold crystal.

Generations on the Land spreads the word about these exemplary ranchers and land owners. Readers become acquainted with families, histories, and the tools and methods that make these stand-out operations.

"They’re so outstanding, they almost make it look easy," remarks McAleese.

As for the book’s influence on the public, McAleese is hopeful that it will be eye-opening.

Books are beautiful, but admittedly, fewer people are taking time to sit down and turn pages. In response, some environmentalists have taken their discussion of ranching to the internet. Amos Eno, president and CEO of Resources First Foundation has been running a blog titled "Keep Working Landscapes Working."

"It’s basically conservation success stories by people who own working landscapes: farms, ranches, and forest owners," says Eno.

Since his organization’s founding in 2000, Eno has been involved in building a series of websites "to target the conservation market of private landowners," helping to connect land owners with conservation tools: easement partners, agency programs, grants, and so on.

"We’ve created a giant Yellow Pages of all the conservation resources, both public and private."

However, although he promotes the use of these tools, Eno is careful to keep his message neutral.

"A lot of landowners really don’t like the agency folks … telling them what to do [and] how to live their life," explains Eno. "Or having environmentalists dictate what they should do."

Accordingly, Eno’s websites offer tools and resources, but do not tell owners how their land should be managed.

Eno’s resume reads like a top-ten list for what he calls the "traditional conservation/environmental career path": Department of Interior; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; National Audubon Society; and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which he ran for 15 years.

But as his career as a conservationist evolved, so did his thinking. Ranchers, Eno concluded, are key partners for addressing environmental issues in the West.

His blog is designed to broadcast that idea to a wide audience.

"I thought about the West, and the dilemma of ranchers who, for 40 years, have been beat up by the mainstream media and environmental groups," explained Eno.

He raises the question, "How do you turn these "villains of the west," as they’re characterized, into "paragons of the west?" One of the ways to do that is to tell their story, in their own words, and present them for what they are."

Eno’s hope is to expand his blog into a large website where the public can have access to a huge variety of ranching success stories, written by the ranchers themselves.

"By creating a central source, basically an encyclopedia of success ... that speaks from the mouth of ranchers, I think it will be an instantly popular site," says Eno.

Perhaps the lesson here is that the tide may slowly be shifting back in the direction of recognizing ranchers as the good guys. This much is clear: serious conservation efforts by ranchers are being recognized, and celebrated, by serious-minded environmental advocates. What they are recognizing is that at the end of the day, we, and they, want similar things: tall grass, clear water, healthy cattle and wildlife. And for those groups who simply cannot tolerate the sight of a cow, and for whom all ranchers are villains and crooks? Who knows? As we strive as ranchers to be even better conservationists, and as these efforts become more generally known and appreciated, perhaps the frantic accusations of those groups will slowly, but surely sink into irrelevance. — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent