Residents of Calaveras County, California, working on wildfire restoration take a break for a photo. The author, Mary Sketch, stands on the far right. (Photo courtesy of Mary Sketch)

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Soon after my 22nd birthday, I decided to move to a town of under 200 people in the Central Sierra Nevada mountains of California. 

My new boss warned me before the cross-country move, “They may not like you,” and “They definitely won’t trust you.” I understood his forewarning. For a community that had just been burned physically and emotionally by the 2015 wildfires, trust was handed out sparingly, if at all. 

Moreover, being a doe-eyed girl from the other side of the country with little-to-no work experience under her belt wouldn’t make things any easier. No number of academic accolades or certificates would help me become part of this place.

But as I spent my first week meeting the people who had a stake in the region, sitting back and soaking in the local knowledge of the community, I realized trust and acceptance weren’t as far off as I initially expected. 

I quickly learned the power of listening. Listening to the story of a landowner suddenly homeless from wildfire, listening to an environmental nonprofit leader diving into a heated discussion with the local timber company.  

I also realized the many forms that listening can take. Listening by simply showing up, listening by inviting diverse stakeholders to the table, listening by moving these stakeholders up to the head of the table. 

As I let myself be humbled by the lived experiences that ran through the veins of the people and place around me, I was slowly embraced and trusted by the community.

Following my time in California, I began graduate work in environmental social science at Virginia Tech and once again found myself face-to-face with the power of listening. My research evaluated a new type of participatory process –  the landowner-listening workshop. 

The approach was first put forth by Partners for Conservation, a landowner-led collaborative whose mission is “improving the landscape through communication.” The only tenets of the workshops: There must be more landowners than conservation professionals in the room, and the landowners must lead the conversation while the professionals listen.

One overcast fall day in 2017, I found myself among a group of local ranchers and conservation professionals in a drafty Elks Lodge in Lakeview, Oregon, to discuss habitat conservation on Western agricultural lands. 

In the Lodge, there was no hidden conservation or political agenda. There was no promise to participants that any policy or management plan would come to life from the conversation. 

We simply promised them that we would listen and to this group of ranchers, that promise was enough.

With more than 50 percent of the U.S. designated as agricultural landwe are seeing greater emphasis being placed on fostering landscapes where conservation and agriculture sustainably coexist.  Achieving long-term conservation gains isn’t possible without involving farmers and ranchers in the process. 

Increasingly, efforts in community-scale conservation are realizing the importance of investing early and often in including landowners in conservation efforts

Efforts to involve landowners, especially agricultural landowners at all conservation levels, from collaboration with ranchers on managing grizzlies and wolves in the Intermountain West to conversations between farmers and scientists on climate change, lead to more resilient and creative approaches to community-scale conservation, while minimizing the need for more drastic approaches such as litigation. 

Lake County, Oregon, was the location of one of two listening workshops conducted as part of the research project. (Photo by Mary Sketch)

As the day went on in the musty banquet hall in Eastern Oregon, we quickly realized that by letting the landowners drive the conversation, the knowledge they shared was different from what we expected. 

We heard what landowners cared most about, the nuanced information we quickly realized held immeasurable value. The social and ecological complexity of how ranchers choose to manage their land is often left out of traditional portrayals of landowners as solely concerned with profit. In reality, there’s much more to it than often assumed. 

Inviting ranchers to tell their own stories and share their needs and concerns built trust between all stakeholders while empowering landowners to find their voice. “You were here to listen and not tell us,” one rancher explained. 

Elevating the voice of often underrepresented stakeholders, such as agricultural landowners, not only creates more inclusive communities – it sets the stage for more effective policies and programs down the road.

As we walked out of our second workshop in Wyoming a few months later, one of the older ranchers stopped me.

“So many meetings that ranchers come to, they’re told the way the world is,” the rancher told me. “This was entirely different. Ranchers were telling conservation professionals what’s going on in their worlds. This was as good as it gets.” 

While the simple act of listening may not be the only answer to our global environmental crises, it may be the first step in changing the conversation and moving toward long-term solutions.

Mary Sketch works with the National Rural Assembly at the Center for Rural Strategies. (Rural Strategies also publishes the Daily Yonder.) She holds a master’s degree from Virginia Tech in Fish and Wildlife Conservation and a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies from Brown University.