SANTA FE, New Mexico — On a winter’s day in 2002, Courtney White stands before a gathering in a downtown Albuquerque meeting room. Two hundred people are packed in here for one reason: They want to save the West’s battered livestock industry.
The crowd is more than just a sea of cowboy hats; there are bare-headed scientists, moderate environmentalists, and professional land managers, too. And White doesn’t look much like the savior of ranching; with his neatly groomed mustache and beard, the head of the Quivira Coalition could pass for a professor.
Nonetheless, White’s talk this frosty January morning rings out like a sermon, filled with stories of redemption. He describes a once-threadbare creek in southwestern New Mexico, where grass and trees have returned even as the cattle continue to graze. He talks about the "Poop and Stomp" operation in northern New Mexico, where a contractor used cows to coax grass into growing on a bleak abandoned mine site. He tells the story of the western New Mexico rancher who allowed environmentalists to build structures, including baffles and rock dams, along a creek on his property, to help slow down the water so that more grass could flourish.
To White, these are examples of a new kind of environmental ethic, one that restores the land, not by leaving it alone, but through the thoughtful use of human hands. They reflect his fervent belief that the only way to save the West’s rapidly developing private land is to save ranching.
White appears to be a jumble of contradictions: He is trying to save ranching, and also stop overgrazing; he lives in a Santa Fe suburb, but wants to slow the pace of urban sprawl; he describes himself as an environmentalist, but frequently fires broadsides at the movement.
Nonetheless, he seems to have hit on the right message at the right time. The progressive ranching movement has been picking up steam for more than a decade, but it is still searching for a center. Since its creation in 1997, the Quivira Coalition has attracted hundreds of ranchers, landowners, conservationists, scientists and agency officials, who believe that both ranching and environmentalism will have to change if they’re going to survive. Coalition members use tools such as active land restoration, new grazing methods and niche marketing. Most of all, they believe in collaboration.
Last January, some 500 people crowded into a midtown Albuquerque hotel for Quivira’s fourth annual conference. They came to hear more than just testimony about how grazing can be good — by now, that’s old hat for the coalition’s true believers. They wanted practical advice on how to run a Quivira-style "New Ranch." They came for lectures on grazing in South Africa and Hawaii, and they picked up tips on the joys of "Slow Food" cookery.
At a time when critics are bewailing "The Death of Environmentalism," this is heady stuff. White can be audacious at times. He says "the grazing debate is in the rearview mirror," and proclaims that Quivira’s brand of environmentalism is "where the West is going."
But some observers are doubtful that Quivira can realize its dream of creating a vital "New Ranch" movement in the West. Some scientists question whether the group’s grazing methods improve the land as much as advertised. Other skeptics wonder whether collaboration has the power to overcome all the forces aligned against ranching today: widely fluctuating cattle prices, soaring real estate values, and the persistent idea that cattle grazing doesn’t make ecological sense in the arid West. White understands the enormity of the task his group is facing, but he is undaunted.
"Our tagline is, ‘Restoration, innovation and education, one acre at a time.’ That puts me in a whole different world than most conservation groups that are in a rush, where everything is a crisis," he says. "We understand there is a crisis, but we’re working on the long range. ... We won’t see it all come to fruition in our lifetimes."
Beyond the range wars
White may say that he doesn’t much care if he sees the fruits of his labor. But he doesn’t act that way: Now 44, he works long hours, writes prolifically, and maintains an intense schedule on the speaking circuit, traveling across the West to talk with both ranching and conservation groups.
Running through his stories of ranchers finding enlightenment is his own tale of personal transformation. "If you would have told me nine years ago that I would be building bridges between ranchers and environmentalists," he says, "I would have looked at you as if you were insane."
White, the son of a physician, grew up in the Phoenix area, attended Reed College in Oregon, and became an archaeologist for the National Park Service. He got environmental religion in 1995, when ultra-conservative Republicans under Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., took control of the U.S. House of Representatives and threatened to dismantle environmental laws. He started attending meetings of the Sierra Club chapter in Santa Fe, and helped push the state to enforce a law requiring mining companies to clean up the messes they left behind.
But White was put off by what he saw as the era’s increasingly toxic rhetoric and politics. It all hit home for him in New Mexico, where loggers hanged environmentalists in effigy in Santa Fe, and the anti-federal wise-use movement reached its shrillest pitch in Catron County.
At the top of his list of horror stories was the struggle over the 227-square-mile Diamond Bar grazing allotment on the Gila National Forest. Rancher Kit Laney, whose family had run cattle on the land for four generations, built a huge following in Catron County, despite the fact that his cows had stripped willow and cottonwood trees from streams in a designated wilderness area. In the end, Silver City, N.M., environmentalist Susan Schock used lawsuits and lobbying to force the Forest Service to remove Laney’s 800 cattle (HCN, 12/23/96: Judge kicks out cows).
White never visited the Diamond Bar, but the ferocity of the conflict crystallized his feelings: "There was no choice between hard-headed ranchers and hard-headed environmentalists," White recalls. "This was all we have, folks? I don’t think so."
There had to be another way, and White found it through Jim Winder, a Deming, N.M.-area rancher who sat on the Sierra Club’s state board of directors. Winder was already a maverick, one of the few New Mexico ranchers to support the reintroduction of the Mexican wolf. Back in the late 1980s, he discovered grazing renegade Allan Savory’s "Holistic Range Management" practices. Winder’s land was now in better shape, his cattle numbers higher, and his business financially healthier, says White, who toured the ranch with his wife in 1996.
"Even in the dead of winter it had a vibrancy that was unfamiliar to us," White wrote in a Quivira newsletter eight years later. "I thought I saw an answer here. You could have ecological stewardship and robust economics."
Two years after he toured the ranch, White, Winder and Barbara Johnson, another Santa Fe Sierra Club member, formed the Quivira Coalition to create a neutral place, or "third position," where ranchers and environmentalists could seek out common ground. They took their name from Spanish colonial mapmakers, who used the word Quivira to describe uncharted territory.
The group incorporated as a nonprofit with $1,000 of Winder’s money in June 1997. A few days later, it hosted its first workshop in a local church; 50 people came.
"Our only product was our first newsletter, which was distributed to every chair," White recalls. "We’d be lying if we said we knew what we were doing. Hope was our only asset."
A bevy of projects
Today, that hope has blossomed into a staff of five full-time and three half-time employees, with an annual budget well over a half-million dollars. Based out of an office in Santa Fe, the coalition has become a hands-on educational center, where hundreds of ranchers and other landowners can get advice on grazing techniques and land restoration. It has sponsored a half-dozen stream and wash restoration efforts in the state; volunteers have built erosion control structures, redesigned culverts, installed fencing, repaired eroding roads and planted trees along streams.
Quivira refuses to lobby or file lawsuits. "We’re not going to take on anybody," White says. "We want to help foster change, work with eager learners, and encourage folks to turn into the new toolbox and help them use whatever tools they choose. I get a lot of NEPA stuff in the mail, asking me to ‘Please comment on this.’ I don’t comment on any of it."
White prefers to work on the ground in places like Comanche Creek, in the upper reaches of northern New Mexico, almost on the Colorado border. The creek lies in the western half of the Carson National Forest’s Valle Vidal unit, an area better known for the federal government’s controversial attempts to lease the land for natural gas drilling.
In 1981, the Forest Service acquired the parcel from a private company and slashed its cattle numbers from 6,000 to 850. But almost 20 years later, the creek remained in rough shape, as did the resident Rio Grande cutthroat trout. In 1998, when several environmental groups pushed to list the fish as endangered, another group, New Mexico Trout, contacted White, hoping to find an alternative plan and avoid a legal quagmire.
As a result, a group of ranchers, conservationists and state and federal agencies mapped a strategy to rehabilitate the many miles of badly designed roads that poured sediment into the creek. They built 102 erosion control structures and fenced off 50 "mini-exclosures" around clumps of willows to keep out cattle and elk. By 2004, part of the stream had recovered enough that the New Mexico Environment Department removed a 12-mile segment of it from a list of impaired streams.
Writing about this in the coalition’s April 2005 newsletter, White asked, "What does Comanche Creek teach us about the roles of advocacy and collaboration? ... Advocacy is a great tool for stopping bad things from happening, but it is a poor tool for encouraging restoration. ... If I were a Rio Grande cutthroat trout struggling for survival, I’d choose the collaborative process. I’d prefer the shade, the clear water and the cooler temperatures produced by dialogue and exertion."
Quivira’s projects have continued to multiply.
Last year, the group bought 240 acres of private land in north-central New Mexico. The land is attached to a 36,000-acre Forest Service grazing allotment on broad, sweeping Rowe Mesa. Up to 325 cows can graze here during a wet year, but Quivira doesn’t plan to buy any cows. Instead, it intends to use the allotment as a "grass bank," where area ranchers can send their cattle for a season to give their own land some rest. With the cattle removed, it will also be easier for the ranchers to restore their land, burning or thinning vegetation.
"The grass bank is a chance for us to walk our talk," says White. It’s also a big risk for the organization’s 12-member board of directors, he says, because "the finances are kind of tough. We are dependent on grant funding right now, but we want to make the grass bank a viable business operation."
Quivira is also creating a "New Ranch Network" with help from a $50,000 grant from the Forest Service. Under the program, Quivira will be able to offer landowners and groups small grants for restoration projects.
Dave Stewart, the Forest Service’s southwest range chief, welcomes the network with open arms. Stewart is no stranger to conflict with environmentalists and ranchers. In the late 1990s, he helped implement an agreement with Forest Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity to remove cattle from 230 miles of battered streams in the Gila River watershed in Arizona and New Mexico (HCN, 10/22/01: Healing the Gila). During the recent drought, he’s overseen steep cuts in cattle numbers on many Southwestern forests (HCN, 8/19/02: New Mexico ranchers push to graze preserve).
Yet Stewart believes ranchers still have a place on the public lands — if they can adopt the collaborative approach and grazing methods espoused by Quivira. "Rest-rotation" grazing is at the heart of Quivira’s approach. It puts a large number of cattle inside a pasture to graze intensely for a very short period, often as little as a few days. Advocates say that the grasses in the heavily trampled pasture respond vigorously once the cattle are removed.
Some scientists question whether rest-rotation works, especially in the dry Southwest. Stewart says it is worth experimenting with: "I can’t provide any quantitative hard evidence where this will be successful," he says. "But after 40 years of dealing and working with these issues, I believe any type of collaborative approach is superior to other decision-making models."
The projects piling up on Quivira’s doorstep amaze White and the other coalition leaders. "We accomplished more in the first five years than we ever dreamed," says Jim Winder, who left the group’s board of directors a year and a half ago. "Now there’s no telling how far Quivira can go."
The uncomfortable middle ground
Courtney White professes humble ambitions, but his speeches and writings reveal a grander dream.
White often evangelizes on the value of working landscapes, those places where people earn a living from the land. He sharply questions environmentalists’ traditional tactics. In Quivira’s June 2004 newsletter, for instance, he warned that wilderness protection is like "fixing the pump without fixing the well" — it shields small parcels from destruction without dealing with the underlying forces that threaten them.
"The environmental movement’s primary challenge is to develop a strategy that re-engages people with the land by emphasizing work, not recreation," White wrote. "If our goal is to join the movement to restore and maintain ecological integrity of land for the long run, then our engagement with nature needs to be deeper than a quick trip to a national park."
As White sees it, the traditional environmental movement is in trouble, losing battle after battle on global warming, urban sprawl, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other fronts. "Most of environmentalists’ goals and tactics today are 40 or more years old," he says. "It’s legitimate to ask if 40-year-old methods are relevant today."
Three years ago, White teamed up with several like-minded thinkers to draft a manifesto that embodies these ideas. Known as An Invitation to the Radical Center, the document calls for a cease-fire between ranchers, environmentalists and agencies. Its principles are relatively simple: Much of the West can run cattle sustainably, although some lands shouldn’t be grazed; ranchers should accept progressively tougher standards of environmental performance; environmentalists should work constructively with people who work on the land; and federal and state agencies should focus on results, not legal procedures.
This philosophy strikes a chord with some conservation organizations in the West. "If really good science and really good litigation were going to win the day, it would have won the day by now," says Tracy Stone-Manning, the executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition, a group working closely with landowners to restore the Clark Fork River in western Montana. "We’re exceptionally talented and good at stopping a proposed project, but we’re not very good at providing solutions for how we’re going to live in this Western landscape."
But in his efforts to carve out the middle ground, White has also managed to alienate some ranchers and environmentalists.
Kierán Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity says White is unnecessarily hostile toward other groups, ignoring the restoration work that has resulted directly from the Endangered Species Act. "The Center is perfectly happy to see Quivira do good work," says Suckling. "But Quivira doesn’t tolerate diversity. ... Under Courtney’s leadership, it has developed an ideological agenda that has less to do with restoring the land and more to do with attacking alternative strategies."
In the case of Comanche Creek, for example, Suckling says the Rio Grande cutthroat has recovered dramatically since his group joined others in filing the listing petition in 1998. Three other trout varieties in the Southwest and Southern Rockies are benefiting from far more restoration work than the cutthroat is getting, he adds — all thanks to Endangered Species Act protection.
Others argue with White’s assertion that anti-grazing groups have no strategy for protecting the West’s ecologically rich private lands, which are being subdivided at an alarming rate.
At last fall’s RangeNet conference in Albuquerque, longtime grazing opponent George Wuerthner argued that environmentalists should pursue other strategies to protect the private lands, such as buying them or purchasing conservation easements. "That’s a lot better than relying on an economically dying industry," he said.
Forest Guardians director John Horning argues that the New Ranch movement can’t save the West without confronting the status quo. "If it were all sweet and comfortable, it wouldn’t be real change," he says. "The Quivira Coalition is basically dressing up the status quo a little, but ... they have no interest in questioning whether or not ranching — and for that matter beef-based agriculture — is appropriate for our arid landscape."
White also has his critics in the ranching community. New Mexico Cattle Growers’ President Don "Bebo" Lee says rotational grazing is "a poor practice" in the arid Southwest. "Most of the producers in New Mexico have 50 head or less. They have a part-time job to sustain what they are doing in the country," he says. "To think it is feasible for them to hire someone else to move the cattle around is a way to put them off the land."
Lee is equally skeptical of Quivira’s cooperative approach. "When I was going to school, collaboration meant working with the enemy," he says. "Most environmental groups aren’t losing anything when they bargain with us. Whatever they get, they have won. We always compromise. We always lose."
The biggest hurdle
Quivira’s progressive ranchers have worked hard to convince the public that their science is sound and their collaborative approach gets results. But they have an even bigger hurdle to clear: economics.
Most ranchers operate at small profit margins, and many economists, including several who admire the work of the coalition, are skeptical that improving land-management practices can slow the accelerating sale of ranches to developers. Ranching is simply not very profitable, and the land’s value as real estate is climbing ever upward.
Allen Torell, a New Mexico State University agricultural economist, says ranching’s profit margin is as low as 2 percent, well below the 6 percent to 9 percent ranchers could make if they put that money in the stock market.
"I understand the frustration with urbanization," says New Mexico State range scientist Jerry Holechek, who has predicted that 25 to 40 percent of Western rangelands will fall to development over the next century. "But at the same time this is an economic and a demographic phenomena the ranchers are fighting. When land values are at $30 to $50 to $100 an acre for grazing, and when it can be sold for $2,000 an acre for homesites, to deal with this is almost impossible. When ranchers get ready to retire and they don’t have an alternative income ... there will be very little to stop this trend."
Quivira has only recently put its toe into the economic waters. In April 2003, the coalition helped create the Southwest Grassfed Livestock Alliance, a group of about 60 Four Corners-area ranchers, conservationists and researchers who seek to educate people about the benefits of beef raised on the open range instead of in feedlots. Elsewhere in the West, grazing cooperatives have learned how to market range-fed beef to high-dollar supermarkets and urban restaurants, at far higher profits than those earned in traditional commodity markets.
"These days, it’s de-commodify or die," says Connie Hatfield, one of the founders of Oregon Country Natural Beef. Her co-op, which sold $40 million in boxed beef last year, supports 70 ecologically minded ranchers who graze 100,000 head of cattle on 4 million acres of the West.
Still, White downplays some of the economic concerns. "The things you can do to tweak the economics: niche marketing, higher stocking rates, recreation and tourism — do they offset real estate values? Hell, no. Nothing compares to what they could get for their land as real estate," he says. "But many ranchers are in it for other reasons. If they can make more money diversifying their economic base, that should help them stay in business."
White is also working with a new breed of ranch owners, he says: people who have more money to work with, and less of an attachment to cows. "We just started working with a retired lawyer and his wife, who bought a ranch. They don’t want to do much on the agricultural side, but they are really interested in doing restoration work," White says.
And White continues to dream big. "Ranching is changing," he says. "Federal land management is changing. We are on the verge of a major rethink of what it is to live and work in the West today."
So far, however, that revolution has not caught on with more than an isolated minority of Westerners. White, during thoughtful moments, admits that this is true. He says he’s content with his acre-by-acre process.
And in the end, that slow forward movement is significant, Quivira’s supporters say.
Quivira is filling a niche that the traditional Western cattlemen’s associations have missed, says writer and conservationist William deBuys. "Quivira has been very effective in reaching out to the progressive elements of the ranching community," he says.
Natural resources professor Mark Brunson, who has devoted himself to the study of how ranchers respond to change, agrees that Quivira plays an important role. "(Ranchers) don’t change on their own, because change is too hard," the Utah State University professor says. "We all do this. We need to push. We push too hard and they tend to push back. It’s finding that soft, gentle nudge. Quivira is a really good way to do that."
Though Courtney White can’t say how his group will evolve in the next few years, he’s sure of one thing: The Quivira Coalition will keep up its gentle nudging.
"There is a definite hunger across the land for ideas that work. I’m not saying we have a silver bullet. I don’t know if it works, but it seems to be working," he says. "If we can continue being a catalyst to get people thinking and trying new things, then we are doing our job."
Tony Davis has been covering grazing in the Southwest for High Country News and three daily newspapers off and on for more than 20 years. Today, he works for the Arizona Daily Star. You can contact him at email@example.com.
The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:
HCN Executive Director Paul Larmer contributed to this story.
This story is funded by the generous donors to the "Who Will Take Over the Ranch?" project, a series of stories on the plight of the West’s private lands.