Conservation wisdom from the radical center

Review of ‘Stitching the West Back Together: Conservation of Working Landscapes.’


Stitching the West Back Together: Conservation of Working Landscapes

Susan Charnley, Thomas E. Sheridan, and Gary P. Nabhan (eds.). 352 pages, paperback: $35.

University of Chicago Press, 2014.


Stitching the West Back Together assembles the experiences and reflections of ranchers, foresters, local officials and academics looking for new and sustainable solutions to the region’s conservation problems.

The book urges conservationists, government employees, tribal officials and private landowners to meet at the “Radical Center,” where goals are ambitious and, most importantly, shared: building a West that is ecologically, aesthetically and culturally healthy. Stitching argues that working landscapes, such as ranches and timberlands, are vital to the preservation of both natural biodiversity and rural culture. “The only way to achieve conservation at a large scale,” the authors write, “is to maintain or restore ecosystem health across the jurisdictional boundaries ... that divide us.”

These boundaries –– the West’s “checkerboard of public, tribal, and private land” –– are described in a short history that serves as an introduction to the main part of the book: case studies of collaborative conservation experiences in forest and rangeland management. The authors focus on how private landowners can preserve species and habitat and yet still make a living.

Examples include the Montana Legacy Project, in which the Trust for Public Land and The Nature Conservancy purchased 310,000 acres of Plum Creek timberland to convey to public and private conservation owners, and the Diablo Trust, an Arizona ranchers’ cooperative, whose members collaborated to build a local food economy, restore soil and watersheds, and increase their own income. Other suggestions in the “widening toolkit” include conservation easements, open-space bonds and mitigation banking, in which developers who plan to destroy significant habitat must pledge to protect habitat of equivalent value.

Each chapter moves deftly from data to “how-to,” and offers a bullet-point list of lessons. Readers facing specific challenges can find stories that speak to their needs, but people with more general interests will also find the book as a whole accessible and even inspiring. Both will come away with new ideas for entrepreneurial approaches to conservation.

With sections by an impressive range of scholars and practitioners, Stitching embodies its own lesson — that success is achieved by working with a diversity of approaches. The book reminds us that “the promise of collaborative conservation, is the possibility of realizing some of the most powerful potentials of a democratic system of governance for people and places.”

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