I first heard of WildEarth Guardians' quiet effort to buy out grazing permits in New Mexico's Gila country more than two years ago. Headlines instantly blared in my head: "Anti-grazing enviros pay off anti-enviro ranchers to make way for wolves!" What a great story, I thought: It would show enemies becoming if not friends, then at least frenemies – bound together by that common currency of real cold, hard currency. And it would also show new thinking in a part of the rural West renowned for its bunker mentality.
But when I checked back with WildEarth Guardians executive director John Horning a year ago to see how things were going, he hedged a bit. The story, he said, was not quite ripe. Though plenty of ranchers were interested, the first deals had yet to come through.
If journalists waited until something fully "ripened" on Western grazing issues, though, they would write very little. Which is why, in this issue, we've jumped in with two public-lands grazing stories that are as much about process and potential as they are about on-the-ground changes.
April Reese's story on the Gila buyout program (which still awaits the completion of its first deal as we go to press), and associate editor Sarah Gilman's on collaborative grazing management in Utah, provide ample evidence that environmentalists, ranchers and agencies are evolving. In Utah, they have, together, come up with plans to manage livestock in ways that don't harm the land. Their ideas – including moving cattle around more frequently and excluding them from riparian areas – are not new, but their spirit of cooperation, their flexibility, and their willingness to monitor and understand the landscape's condition are.
In New Mexico, Horning's group had to make a conceptual leap to even consider paying ranchers to vacate allotments – they had to start treating public-land grazing as "a right" and acknowledge its monetary value. That may not sound like much, but for activists who have spent decades in court trying to compel agencies to remove cattle from public lands, it is.
Promoting the buyout program face-to-face with ranchers has forced both environmentalists and ranchers out of their comfort zone. Some ranchers are even starting to accept that Mexican wolves are here to stay. As Terry Reidhead, who hopes to receive a sizeable check soon from WildEarth Guardians in exchange for giving up his federal grazing permit, told Reese, "I wasn't for the wolf reintroduction. We've been making a living off this old forest for 100 years. But it's a steep, rugged allotment and it's probably better suited for wildlife than anything. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."
Coming from the heart of New Mexico's Sagebrush Rebellion country, that is a promising sentiment. It may not make for exciting headlines, but we think it's a great story.