Hope for the West's open lands

  • Paul Larmer


Eighteen months ago, High Country News kicked off a series about the West’s ranchlands with a cover story titled "Who Will Take Over the Ranch?" That first story laid out in stark terms the rapid loss of the West’s wide-open spaces to the real estate economy that now so fervently grips the region.

In the last 30 years, nearly a quarter of the West’s private ranchlands have been converted to other uses, according to the American Farmland Trust. And the pace is quickening due to a host of factors, including aging ranchers, uninterested heirs, poor commodity markets, high taxes, ranchette development and soaring land values.

What can be done to preserve the West’s private lands, with their wide-open spaces and rich wildlife habitat? Our first story described one promising development: the region’s rapidly growing network of land trusts, which use easements to put some cash in ranchers’ pockets in return for keeping the land undeveloped (HCN, 3/29/04: Who will take over the ranch?).

Since then, we’ve covered collaborative work among conservationists, ranchers and the federal government to conserve unplowed prairie in eastern Montana (HCN, 8/2/04: The Greening of the Plains). We profiled a rancher in the growing "healthy beef" movement, which encourages more sustainable grazing and, because it cuts out the meatpacker middlemen, allows ranchers to make a decent profit (HCN, 3/21/05: Colorado couple turns healthy profit from healthy beef).

We also covered a growing movement to pay ranchers to permanently remove their cows from ecologically sensitive public lands — a process that, ironically, could allow them to keep their private lands whole (HCN, 4/4/05: The Big Buyout). And we didn’t shy away from the conservation movement’s warts: One cover story detailed how conservation easements can be misused due to a lack of formal protocols (HCN, 5/30/05: Write-off on the Range).

This issue’s cover story is the final installment of the series, and we’re asking another tough question: Can progressive ranchers work together to become a force strong enough to ensure their own survival in the West of the 21st century?

Veteran reporter Tony Davis takes a hard look at the nonprofit Quivira Coalition, a group that has quickly become the nucleus of the growing "New Ranch" movement. The coalition gives ranchers the tools to become better land managers, filling a vital role that ranching’s traditional organizations — the cattlemen’s associations — have largely ignored in their determination to fight grazing fee increases and environmental regulations.

But it’s one thing to get people to come to a conference or attend a stream restoration workshop, quite another to forge a movement that has political clout, backs up its practices with science, and is able to keep ranchers on their feet in an economic stampede.

Can we preserve the West’s invaluable private lands? Yes, but it will take a level of collaboration and organization that groups like Quivira may aspire to, but have yet to achieve.

The ingredients for a progressive ranching movement are scattered out there, among the land trusts, the conservation groups, the agencies, the ranching community — even in the cities and suburbs, where many of the next generation of ranchland owners will come from. What’s needed now are creative cooks who can bring those ingredients together.

If that happens, then decades from now, after the passing of the largest wave of ranchland transfer since the Homestead Act, the region’s ranchlands will endure, a home not only to the West’s rich wildlife, but also to a new, eclectic breed of rancher.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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