Ranchers and environmentalists have a reputation for being on opposite sides of land-use debates, especially in the rough-and-tumble West. But a Southwest organization has a 20-year track record of bringing those sides to the table to create solutions that work for both.
Rancher and farmers in the West are typically portrayed as vying against more urban environmental groups. The disagreements can stem from the legal use of public land for private livestock or timber production. Differences of opinion on how many cows can graze or how many trees can be harvested lead to debates and lawsuits. Ranchers and timber harvesters can see limitations as unnecessary and burdensome, while environmental organizations are concerned that poor practices can damage public land and wildlife.
A New Mexico-based organization, the Quivira Coalition, brings parties together to try to move beyond the conflict to build different, and better, relationships between sometime adversaries. They call it their position the “Radical Center,” and they believe that by focusing on improving land management and restoring productivity to damaged places, the conflict-based relationships can be replaced with cooperation and positive change.
“For decades, environmentalists and ranchers have fought over the heart of the American West,” reads the Quivira Coalition’s description of the problem it hopes to solve. “The combatants have fought long and hard, but as their struggle over the working landscapes of the West pulled in citizens, agency officials, attorneys and judges, one consequence is clear: during the fight, millions of acres of the West’s open spaces and biologically rich lands were broken by development.”
One of their key events, an Annual Conference, just concluded in Albuquerque last month. “Our Annual Conference creates a safe space for people that want to get together and talk, people who might not align in their opinions for all things,” said Nick Mendoza, who organized this year’s Conference for Quivira.
Mendoza said the event showed him how many successes, how many great relationships, have been forged. “When it comes to ranchers, and also to wildlife, it’s all about healthier land. Lots of grass is good for everyone and everything. What’s good for the soil is good for everyone. Everyone at the Conference seemed to understand this and focus on it,” Mendoza said.
Since 1997, Quivira has used a flexible nonprofit structure to accomplish numerous tasks. The group has hosted on-the-ground restoration projects that have restored at least one million acres of rangeland and fifty linear miles of wetlands and streams. The group has also organized hundreds of educational events on topics such as drought management, riparian restoration, harvesting water from ranch roads, conservation easements, reading the landscape, ecological and photo monitoring, water harvesting, low-stress livestock handling and agricultural entrepreneurship.
In addition to technical and educational restoration information, Quivira publishes newsletters, journals, bulletins and field guides and books. They also directly operate the innovative Valle Grande Grassbank, located near Santa Fe and produce local, grassfed beef themselves.
One example of Quivira’s collaborative approach to restoring the Comanche Creek Watershed in rural Northern New Mexico. The region had experienced years of destructive impacts from timber harvesting and subsequent construction of logging roads, mining, and livestock overgrazing. The result of these past practices were a significant amount of soil erosion, as well as overall degradation of the combined stream and wetland ecosystems.
Quivira helped to organize a watershed association, secure funding to be used for educational workshops and on-the-ground restoration projects, and serves as the project manager for these large-scale restoration projects including coordination of machine-build projects as well as annual volunteer work weekends.
Mendoza said that, again, from the restoration team’s perspective, “there was some initial resistance from ranchers in the area.” But that is no longer a roadblock to the efforts. “As one rancher told me, ‘you can’t argue with the results, there’s head high grass now,’” Mendoza reported.
In addition to sharing knowledge and skills related to improving working lands, both public land and private land, in the Southwestern states, the Quivira Coaltion Conference featured a wide variety of speakers on topics related to sustainable land management. 360 people attended the event from 18 states and 6 continents. Mendoza said that approximately one-third of participants were ranchers and farmers, one-third scientists and conservation professionals and one-third was a mixed bag of students and interested community members.
Highlights of the Conference, Mendoza said, were the cross-disciplinary mix of technical speakers with the more artistic and creative thoughts from others. Michael Phillips, for instance, spoke to his experience re-generating the microbial life of the soil as a key to his apple orchard production in New Hampshire. The closing speaker, the poet Michelle Otero, discussed her efforts to harness art, local agriculture, and economic development as a platform for neighborhood revitalization in Albuquerque.
The Conference also included a “graduation ceremony” for students that participate in the organization’s “New Agrarian Program.” The graduates had spent the previous year working on ranches and farms committed to the mission of restoring local ecologies and economies with sustainable production methods.
The Organization maintains their focus on the Radical Center by focusing on subjects of broad agreement, such as restoring previously degraded land and improving water quality and availability. Their board is made up scientists, ranchers and professionals dedicated to rebuilding local economies with conservation-minded practices.
Quivira’s Radical Center approach, closes with a message of hope. “But the fight has gone on far too long. In recent years, the American West has witnessed tremendous positive changes, including the rise of models of sustainable use of public and private lands; the shift of conservation and scientific strategies from `protection’ alone to include restoration; and the expanding role of cooperative efforts to move beyond resource conflicts,” they conclude.
For more information about the Quivira Coalition, visit the organization’s website at https://quiviracoalition.org. Videos of the conference speakers and presentations will be uploaded to their website soon.