The state of the ‘radical center’

Courtney White talks about innovative ranching and his new book.

 

Courtney White, founder of the Santa Fe-based Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit that works to build bridges between conservationists, ranchers and managers to improve land health, is publishing his fourth book this month. The work is a collection of essays and other writings since 2002 about ranching, environmental degradation and collaborative problem-solving in the Western U.S. In 2003, White was part of a group of ranchers, conservationists and other public land stakeholders who came together for 48 hours to write a "radical center" declaration to “take back the American West from decades of divisiveness” and find common ground in an increasingly polarized political climate. The radical center movement is the foundation for much of the Coalition’s work today. The book’s title, The Age of Consequences: A Chronicle of Concern and Hope, refers to what White sees as our current era, in which land use decisions have big impacts in the form of global phenomena like climate change. HCN recently spoke with White about his book and land use in the West.

High Country News What do you mean by “the age of consequences”?

Courtney White The “age of consequences” begins about 2005. We (at the Quivira Coalition) were working landowner by landowner, trying to create common ground between ranchers and conservationists. Lurking in the background were always (questions like): What if there’s a prolonged drought? How does that affect our work? After Hurricane Katrina, what are now being called “new normals” started. Everything that was local or regional leaped up to global concern. We changed our mission statement in 2007 to include the word “resilience.” Prior to that, we hadn’t thought of global concerns.

HCN The book includes the radical center declaration from 2003. Do you think that attempt to find common ground is still effective today?

CW The direct impact of that statement that we wrote was fairly substantial. We circulated it widely, and it helped turn a corner. I know some environmental groups, it made them rethink their automatic (criticism) of ranching. Though not the groups that really like to sue or larger groups like Sierra Club.

(The radical center idea) moved forward in the mid-to-late ‘90s and rose rapidly across the West. From Northwest to Southwest, the whole brawl between conservationists and land users — loggers, ranchers miners —  took a big downturn. They’re still skirmishing, but the idea that we’re going to choke each other to death (has subsided). I hear the term radical center all the time now.

In the larger political context of this country, there’s a hunger for a radical centrist thing. We’re so polarized politically, and here’s an effort that is on the ground, where ranchers and others work things out. I think there’s an even stronger urge today.

HCN In the book, you describe a ranching experiment in the West Elk mountains of Colorado in which six ranchers grazed their cattle all together in a slow, one-way arc on Forest Service land in order to minimize ecological impact. Did that idea take off after their success?

CW The herding was very effective. They asked for an increase in their animal units and I think it was granted. As for how wide the ripple effect of that particular project was, I don’t know. It didn’t multiple widely. There were a lot of bureaucratic challenges they had to overcome.

We at the Quivira Coalition became permittees, running a grass bank (which gave ranchers a place to graze their cattle while their regular grazing areas received restoration work). We found that the personnel in the Forest Service were great, but the nature of bureaucracies in general — they don’t like innovation very much. Herding, like what was done in the West Elks, was way out of the box for the Forest Service.

HCN The book includes a 2002 essay about a tour of what you called “New Ranches,” or operations that were part of an emerging, progressive ranching movement. If you took that tour now, what would you see that’s different?

CW When I took that tour, there weren’t a lot of places to see those kinds of progressive ranching activities. There’s a lot more now. I would expand the definition of New Ranch to include grassfed food and ecological restoration. Ranchers are very conservative politically and climate change was a controversial idea when we started. Things have changed and folks now understand these issues.

HCN What are the newer methods in sustainable ranching today?

CW A lot of it’s built around the idea of soil carbon, sequestering atmospheric carbon in soil. There are carbon farms, people trying to manage the landscape in soils, wetlands restoration, rooftop farming, growing fiber. There’s a cooperative movement to bring grassfed food to local eaters. We know how to fix creeks now, which we didn’t know 15 years ago. We know a lot about organic ranching that we didn’t 15 years ago. (A speaker at our recent conference was) looking at large landscapes in the West from the air and monitoring whole ranches, which is sort of the New Ranch meets new tech.

If you go back to 1998 when we got started, it was just about managing the cows differently. But the restoration we did was not cow-based. It was thinking about nature and how nature does things, like using nature as a model for floods and creeks.

HCN Are these ideas really all that new?

CW Some ranchers have been working on this for 40 years. Often ranchers don’t get credit for the good job they do. But what’s happened in the last 15 years — the new ideas for food production or fiber — a lot is led by youth. Grassfed beef production, for example, has really taken off. Fifteen years ago, good ranchers were doing good management but still in the conventional food system.

HCN You wrote several years ago that the best way to protect open space is to support ranchers who take care of the land. Do you think that’s still true?

CW Yes…. One way things have changed is that the recession of 2008 lessened the threat of subdivisions. The subdivision crisis was a big deal through the early 2000s. The real estate market has recovered, but not like it used to be. For ranchers, the pressure to sell out and subdivide is not like it used to be. Though maybe on the Front Range of Colorado it is.

But now we have the oil and gas crisis. Many ranchers would like to stay on the land and not lose it to oil and gas or subdivisions.

HCN In the book’s final chapter, you describe five waves of the conservation movement. What’s the newest wave?

CW The fifth wave is just getting started. All these movements have a 20 to 30 year cycle to them. I’m a member of the fourth wave. What I see through (the Quivira Coalition’s) apprenticeship program, is that the next generation is interested in this agrarian division. It’s about addressing these challenges. There’s definitely an interest in “what can I do about this problem.” We’re at the very beginning (of this wave) and it’s rising quickly.

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Tay Wiles is the online editor of High Country News.