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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
Advisory Council meetings are open to the public. For information,
contact the BLM state office in your state.
The writer, a
former summer fellow at High Country News, lives in the Washington,