Talking ranching through its bleakest hour

  • Hudson Glimp

    Kit Miller
  • Elk are released near Bruneau River in Nev.

    Larry Gilbertson/Nev. Div. of Wildlife

Note: this article in one of several feature stories in a special issue about the West's land grant universities and their extension programs.

Reno, Nev. - The hall of the University of Nevada's College of Agriculture is lined with dusty black-and-white photographs of former professors, peering knowingly from below their cowboy hats. Hudson Glimp seems like he would fit right in among his predecessors on the wall, with a strong voice straight off his native west Texas plains, a big belt buckle and cowboy boots. The bookshelves in his office adjoining the college's animal production lab are lined with 30 years' worth of the Journal of Animal Science and videos with names like Ultrasound Pregnancy Testing for Sheep.

But these days, the traditional "feed "em and weigh "em" research for which the lab was built no longer holds his attention. Instead, he focusses on the very future of his field and the world in which his students will function.

"The question is no longer which kind of sheep I should raise and how to manage them," Glimp says, "but whether I can have them at all. We're not giving students the skills to handle the conflicts we already know exist. We're feeding them to the lions."

Glimp knows about conflicts between livestock and land firsthand. Before coming to the University of Nevada, he was director of a Department of Agriculture Sheep Experiment Station on the Idaho side of Yellowstone National Park. Three national forests, the Bureau of Land Management and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition were all concerned - and very vocal - about the land Glimp thought was his to experiment with.

"I became convinced that we as scientists would have to get off our high horses "'here are the facts, take "em or leave "em' - and recognize that values and beliefs were valid parts of the process," Glimp says. "Traditional approaches to technical decisions are not capable of handling the emotions of frustration, fear and even anger that are often inherent in diverse constituencies. I didn't know how to handle that part of it. Nor did others."

The art of agreement

When he came to Nevada to take an endowed chair dedicated to research and extension work, Glimp sought colleagues to help him and his students figure out how to manage such conflicts. He found Mike Havercamp and Dave Torell. Havercamp is a soft-spoken professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies who teaches community development, conflict resolution and facilitation. Torell was a cooperative extension livestock specialist in Winnemucca who was trying to negotiate the reintroduction of elk in northeastern Nevada.

The three of them created a program called "Reaching Sustainable Agreements' in 1992. Two years ago, it was formally organized as a cooperative extension program involving 16 faculty in Nevada and four other states.

In their most visible success so far, Torell facilitated an agreement to "put the elk back in Elko County" on the 4,725-acre Howard Ranch in northeastern Nevada. The ranch was bought by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to reintroduce elk, a move supported by the Nevada Department of Wildlife and the Humboldt National Forest but opposed by local ranchers near the Bruneau River.

To address ranchers' concerns, the foundation asked Torell to facilitate the committee that would guide the elk reintroduction. After several years of negotiations, the committee unanimously agreed to a plan that parceled out the available forage between the elk and surrounding ranches. The first elk were released along the river last year.

"This kind of collaborative process is the only way I know of right now, in the current environment we are living and working in, to have a win-win situation," says Betsy Macfarlan, executive director of the Nevada Cattlemen's Association and a participant in the group. "We viewed elk as long-legged cows with no respect for fences. But as long as we keep the management team together, I think we can successfully resolve any problems that come up."

But few efforts of the Reaching Sustainable Agreements program have enjoyed such concrete success. Negotiations to end long-running legal feuds on the Truckee River broke down last year.

Glimp insists the project was not a failure. "I may be grasping at straws," he says, "but serious discussions are still going on out of the public eye among people who didn't talk to each other before."

How do you measure success if falling short of reaching an agreement cannot be called a failure? Glimp says evaluating the success of decisions designed to be sustainable over the long term is impossible to do in the short term. "Unfortunately," he says, "we are so new that none of the agreements have been out there long enough for us to dissect the process."

Glimp considers the work both an art and a science. "We would hope decisions are based on good science," he says. "But their implementation is truly an art."

Glimp says his colleagues in the university "accept but don't embrace" the Reaching Sustainable Agreements program. "This kind of work takes the university out of its comfort zone," he says. "And some scientists feel that conflict resolution is totally inappropriate for researchers. But that's a cop-out. I tell them: "If you've got a better way to see that good science is utilized and emotions minimized in good decisions, show me." "

University of Nevada economist Tom Harris gives Glimp's efforts the nod. "He is getting people to talk," says Harris. "If it stops people from blowing up buildings, it's good."

For Glimp this work is largely a labor of love, an emotional response to a crisis he fears will make livestock science irrelevant. The annual budget for the Reaching Sustainable Agreements program has been a paltry $12,000 to $15,000 per year. But an endowed chair funded by the Rafter 7 Ranch in Yerington has given Glimp intellectual freedom; it allows him to write, set his own research agenda and limit his teaching load to one class a year. Glimp has responded by becoming an evangelist for change, believing it the only way ranching and agriculture and the land-grant colleges' traditional calling will survive.

"We've got to get out of the ivory tower and the comfort zone of scientific facts," he says. "We in the university run the risk of being either irrelevant or full of intellectual cowards."

Former High Country News intern Donica Harrington writes from Reno, Nevada. Jon Christensen writes from Carson City, Nevada.

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