One West


Looking back over the past century, the greatest shortcoming of the conservation movement in the American West has been its near-total failure to devise a strategy for privately owned land in the region.

By any yardstick — watershed acres, animal species, ecological processes — conservation success on private land has been small. While many environmentalists correctly note that half of the West is publicly owned and thus held in trust for the public good, they rarely mention the other part of that equation: Half of the West is in private hands.

This is significant because, as many researchers have written, private lands contain the most productive soils, are located at lower elevations and often include key riparian areas. Wildlife biologist Rick Knight, who teaches at Colorado State University, put it this way: "We will not be able to sustain native biodiversity in the Mountain West by relying merely on protected areas. Future conservation efforts to protect this region’s natural heritage will require closer attention being paid to the role of private lands."

But how? The tactics of demonization, litigation, regulation and pressure politics may be effective on public lands — though to a diminishing degree these days — but they’re essentially useless on private land.

They won’t work because they’re tools of coercion. They’re useful to right a wrong or quick-fix a crisis, but ineffective for chronic afflictions, such as the slow decline of biological diversity. Our ecological crisis is really a social crisis, and you don’t change human behavior with a hammer.

Until conservationists can conceive of the region as one West — indivisible in the things that matter, such as water, wildlife, soil, community and the common good, and develop strategies that work evenly and fairly, the ecological trend will continue downward.

A few years ago, I was part of a panel discussion in Silver City, N.M., that focused on livestock and native plants. On the panel with me was a vigorous local environmentalist who drew a sharp line in the sand when it came to cows. I’d cited a statistic that over 100 million acres of private land in the West are owned by ranchers, and most need the grazing provided by public lands to stay profitable.

I turned to the activist and asked: "If you’re successful in booting ranchers off public lands, what happens to all that private land? Who’s going to keep it from being sold to subdividers?"

The environmentalist responded by saying his concern was for public land, and he was only interested in creating "refugia" for native plants and animals.

His comment upset the Forest Service biologist at the other end of the panel. "What good is a refuge if it’s also a biological desert?" he asked, hotly. "Because that’s what’s happening in the Gila Wilderness."

He went on to say that the suppression of fire and other natural agents of ecological disturbance, including, under the right conditions, animal impact, had contributed to ecological stagnation in the wilderness.

Right there, I realized, was the heart of the matter. Do we continue to divide the West into two parts based on philosophical ideals — such as whether we have a public or a private "right" to something on the land — or do we talk about crossing boundaries and working collaboratively?

Efforts to sequester land by buying it are laudable, but there isn’t enough money to do the job; not even enough for the purchase of conservation easements. Prices also keep rising, almost literally by the minute. One response to the dilemma of limited funds has been to target "the last best places." It’s been a useful strategy. The Conservation Fund, for example, has passed the 4-million-acre mark nationwide, in terms of protected land.

It only took them 19 years.

Many land-buying organizations have recently turned to collaborative, community-based projects to widen the conservation impact across threatened landscapes. At the same time, other conservation organizations, such as Defenders of Wildlife and Environmental Defense, offer incentive programs and other tools to encourage better land use among private landowners.

But more than anything, environmentalists need to make peace with ranchers and other landowners. And everyone needs to begin a dialogue about the health of the land and economic opportunity, regardless of where the fences may go.

As John Maynard Keynes said, "The difficulty lies not in new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones."

Courtney White is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( In Santa Fe, New Mexico, he is executive director of the Quivira Coalition, whose fourth annual conference, "Half public, half private, one West," takes place Jan. 13-15 in Albuquerque.

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].