Adapt or die

Mar 1, 2013

It happened to Kodak. It happened to Blockbuster. It happened to Borders, Oldsmobile, Hostess, Circuit City and Pan Am. Written into the history of these once towering companies is a cautionary tale about survival that public lands ranchers would do well to heed: Adapt to change or get dumped in the dustbin of history.

Once upon a time, ranching on public lands was simple. You saw your range con in the spring. He told you how many AUMs you could use that year, and you turned out. So long as you pretty much followed the rules, there were few problems. If there were issues, you could depend on your friendly neighborhood range con to tell you, since he was out on the public land doing his job. You managed your cows, the agency managed the range, and no one was getting dragged into to court. It was a happy time.

If that sounds a bit dated to you, it is. These days, we’ve got range cons who know more about climate change and “ecosystem services” than they do about cows and bunchgrass. Many of them are desk jockeys, not boots-on-the-ground managers. In many cases, this isn’t even their fault; they’re stuck processing paperwork thanks to a perpetual stream of lawsuits from Western Watersheds Project and other anti-grazing groups. An anti-grazing attitude is also trickling into the ranks of the agencies themselves, making it even harder for ranchers to trust agency folks to give them a fair deal. It’s no wonder that many permittees feel under siege, like they’re hunkered down just waiting to have their AUMs slashed and lose the family business.

Bluntly put, the comfortable old system no longer exists. These changes—which have been creeping in over the last few decades—make some ranchers feel helpless, even outraged. But no outpouring of indignation is going to turn back the clock. The real problem is that too many public lands ranchers still haven’t gotten their minds around the fact that to survive in this new world, they have to reinvent how they operate as a public lands permittee.

But some have. I’ve noticed this. An innovative species of public lands rancher is emerging across the West. Several qualities make these ranchers stand out. First, the 21st-century permittee is proactive. They don’t wait to be told by the agencies about possible issues on their range. Instead, they take an active range management role, looking for places that may need improvement and approaching the agency with possible solutions. Second, they make a point of educating themselves, both about range conservation and about current issues that could affect them. Third, these new ranchers proactively undertake conservation projects, both on their private and public land, for which they actively seek funding and partners. In short, these ranchers know that grazing, when it’s done right, can have major benefits to the environment. But they don’t rely on stale talking points. They go out there and prove their point with dirt and grass.

What this 21st-century permittee understands is that he can no longer just be a manager of cattle. He has to manage rangelands, wildlife, soil.

For some, this will be an unwelcome change. But others will view this as an opportunity—to improve their operation, fine-tune the positive influence of cattle grazing, and forge relationships with agency folks and others by being an active partner.

Public lands ranchers are standing on the cusp of a new age. The permittees who survive will be the ones who are ready to step into a proactive management role, and assume a new sense of responsibility on their range. ...Those who won’t, who cling desperately to the status quo, will eventually go the way of the Ding Dong and Kodachrome. — ANDY RIEBER