DENVER, Colo. - Call them the cowboy and the lady. He is T. Wright Dickinson, tall, rail-thin, a third-generation rancher living on 35,000 high-desert acres in northwestern Colorado. She is Kathy Carlson, dressed in an ankle-length dress, glasses framing a tanned face, a veteran of Washington, D.C., politics for the National Wildlife Federation who moved to Denver last year.


Combatants in a long-running conflict over how to use public lands, they are sitting side-by-side. They are talking easily and listening to each other. No tension born of past heated arguments; no wary, coded conversation.


Their comfort is a direct result of a common experience: For the past year, Dickinson and Carlson have served as appointees to one of the BLM's Resource Advisory Committees. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt appointed the RACs (pronounced racks) in August 1995 despite opposition from Congress, ranchers and many environmental groups.


For Dickinson, the RAC sidesteps the pendulum swings of Congress, where sentiments to reform grazing have waxed and waned over the past several years. "It's us out in the grass that get trampled when the elephants fight," Dickinson says.


RACs, he says, "give us the potential to come together more locally, resolving issues in a forum at the lowest level possible."


Carlson says that during meetings, "we forget which group we represent." "Amen," says Dickinson.


RACs are currently operating in 14 Western states, yet a few years ago it would have been hard to imagine their existence. A "War on the West" was how ranchers described Babbitt's attempt at range reform, which at first included higher grazing fees. Babbitt was forced to back off the fee issue and, in 1993, headed to Colorado to try to salvage regulations aimed at improving the land's condition.


In a series of meetings with Gov. Roy Romer, state and local officials, ranchers, environmentalists and other public-lands users, the RAC concept of locally based advisory councils was born (HCN, 6/27/94). Unlike the old grazing advisory boards set up by the Bureau of Land Management, which were dominated by ranchers, the new model called for 15 diverse appointees - five from commodity and user groups, five from environmental interests, five from state and local elected officials and academic institutions.


Range management used to be "a closed shop between BLM and the ranching community," says BLM Acting Director Mike Dombeck. But now, he says, "We've got a whole different kind of public on the land, a diversity of people who continually put more and more demands on the resources."


While some states, such as Colorado, quickly embraced the RAC concept, others, such as New Mexico and Wyoming, were reluctant. At one point, New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson prepared a press release declaring his state would not participate in a RAC. But he withdrew it at the last minute.


The RAC concept even seems to be thriving in Nevada, where grazing issues have provoked violence against federal officials. Veteran Sierra Club spokeswoman Rose Strickland, who has never met an advisory committee she liked, is "pleasantly surprised" at how well the central Nevada RAC she serves on has worked. Early discussions have focused on "standards and guidelines," which lay out goals for rangeland health, such as water quality, ecological processes and habitat for threatened and endangered species.


Strickland says getting to agreements has not been easy - the first meetings were chaotic and tedious - but now there is a growing feeling of common purpose. "For the first time in 20 years, ranchers and environmentalists are talking about rangeland health," she says.


BLM director Dombeck, who has visited many of the RACs, says the key to their success has been the development of a common language among participants. Each RAC has undergone basic training on rangeland ecosystems, including classroom sessions and on-the-ground visits to various federal grazing allotments.


Dombeck tells how a rafting field trip on the Rio Grande, which guides dubbed the "rubber rodeo," opened the eyes of a few ranchers who had never floated a river. RAC members, he said, are getting a real education in the changes that have occurred to the economic bases of Western communities. Though rangeland health is the first issue the RACs must tackle, other issues, including recreation, are on their agenda.


Grazing, however, remains the RACs' top priority for the moment, and coming to agreement will not be easy. After formulating goals and guidelines, the RACs must come up with specific recommendations on ways to implement them. In her Colorado Front Range RAC, Kathy Carlson senses a reluctance to do that. "Agreeing on the need for healthy riparian areas is one thing," says Carlson. "Talking about reducing the number of cows or other range management techniques is a whole different ballgame."


For Rose Strickland, the ultimate test of the RACs will be their ability to change the physical condition of the land. "Until we can see the results, can see success stories, the jury's still out," she says.


All Resource Advisory Council meetings are open to the public. For information, contact the BLM state office in your state.


*Rick Keister





The writer, a former summer fellow at High Country News, lives in the Washington, D.C., area.